John Covelli and the Hard Bop Messenger album Live at the last hotel, stretches and reshapes hard bop, a more intense and rhythmically propulsive jazz subgenre than the bebop from which it originated. There are elements of funk, blues and swing in the album as well as John-Coltrane influenced chord change schemes.
“It’s just fun to listen to, it makes you want to dance; it makes you want to move, snap your fingers, tap your feet,” says Covelli. “I wanted to play for the pleasure of others. I wanted it to be something that I enjoy, and so it’s kind of that sweet spot.
The album, which was released on June 3, stems from the Hard Bop Messengers’ six-month residency at the Last Hotel in downtown St. Louis. It’s a concept album that tells the story of the employees of a fictional version of the hotel. For example, “Standing Up Against The Wall” ponders the possibilities of a potential new business partnership (I gotta call a guy today / He says he wants to pay / I don’t know if he’s on the level). “Chef Can Cook” is about a talented new chef (Add something like a bay leaf / Has a power over me / Something stronger like a saffron, it’s a taste full of adventure you can’t no see !). In addition to Covelli on trombone, the band features Chris Meschede on bass, Nick Savage on drums, Ben Shafer on sax, Luke Sailor on piano and vocals by Matt Krieg.
Live at the last hotel represents something Covelli has been working on since he was a kid and playing the trombone in his bedroom. Getting to this album and this moment took a lot of time, including overcoming two intrinsically linked issues – stage anxiety and alcoholism – that had taken over not just his music but his life.
“Drugs and alcohol didn’t help me play music better,” he says, “and certainly didn’t inspire me to be creative as a songwriter.”
Covelli found jazz young. He remembers having spontaneously ad-libed or “messed up” with trombone melodies. This kind of improvisation, a hallmark of the form, brought him to jazz classes and then, in 1983, to Webster University, formally studying him.
“I’m just drawn to it,” he says.
Covelli went on to earn an undergraduate degree in jazz studies and most of a master’s degree from Webster before giving up two short credits to tour with a rock band and then a Latin band. In the meantime, he met and married his wife, had children, obtained a master’s degree in finance and then an MBA, began teaching at the University of Fontbonne, founded a rock school with David Simon and continued playing shows and touring.
Throughout his life, however, Covelli felt crippled by intense stage anxiety, which led him down a path of drug addiction.
“As soon as I heard about weed, I smoked it before I went to rehearsals in high school,” he says, explaining that he thought it would relax him. But it never worked like that. “I would think ‘Oh my god, I’m way too stoned. I can’t even read [music], In any event. I’m already at a disadvantage because I can’t read music very well, and now I’ve just added another handicap.
But Covelli continued to revert to pot and then alcohol as he grew into a teenager playing gigs in bars. Everything seemed to fit his romanticized idea of what musicians are. “It’s really cool,” recalls Covelli.
He continued to drink, and it became more of a problem. Married with children, Covelli was getting hammered at concerts, angering his wife. He told her it was part of the band experience, and she said he couldn’t stand alcohol. So he tried to deal with it, thinking he would only have one drink, that he just needed to eat first or only drink on the weekends.
Then, in October 2013, Covelli played a show after a Cardinals game.
“During that first set, I passed out in a blackout,” he says. He finished the gig but then disappeared. His bandmates eventually found him at Steak ‘n Shake. He didn’t remember it later. “It was the scariest experience of my life and it still is,” he adds. “I had this moment of clarity.”
That night prompted Covelli to seek help, and once he heard “alcoholism,” he felt it all made sense.
“There’s a reason I can’t drink like everyone else,” he says. “So that was it. I mean, I got sober. That was my sobriety date, October 25th.
It would be simplistic to say that everything fell into place after that, but getting sober was the start of Covelli’s self-Renaissance. He worked on his personal life, becoming a better husband and father. He also saw a therapist to work on the anxiety that had plagued his life and career.
In 2017, sober and determined to focus on his music and jazz, Covelli set up the Hard Bop Messengers. A year later, he was talking to Will Rogers, then food and beverage manager of the Last Hotel, and mentioned that it was too bad there wasn’t a lot of jazz downtown.
“He said, ‘Well, let’s change that. Let’s jazz downtown,” says Covelli. This exchange resulted in the Hard Bop Messenger’s residency at the Last Hotel. For six months, the band played a show every Friday from 6-8:20 p.m. The experience of having that regular gig and the ability to redo things every week finally got Covelli over his stage anxiety. He got used to playing his music and speaking to the public.
“I felt confident because the choices I was making were the right ones,” he says. “It was the experience that changed my life and led me to write the music for this album.”
The pandemic was the other half of the equation. As COVID-19 brought live performances to a halt, Covelli and the band didn’t want to give up on music together. About a month after the residency ended in April 2020, they recorded what would become their first song about the hotel and released it on social media.
The response from the hotel and the public was affirmative, and Covelli then immersed himself in writing; Hard Bop Messengers then recorded the album over 2.5 days in the summer of 2021.
For Covelli, the end product feels like an affirmation of his hard work and place on the St. Louis music scene. Most importantly, he is eager to share his music with the world.
To listen Live at the last hotel on any streaming service and catch Hard Bop Messengers at the Dark Room at 7 p.m. on Friday, August 19.