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Your backstage pass to Northeast Ohio's independent music scene.

Jazz artist Bobby Selvaggio celebrates father-son bond on latest album

Bobby Selvaggio performs on his saxophone for Applause Performances
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Jazz saxophonist Bobby Selvaggio plays tracks from his latest album, "Stories, Dreams, Inspirations: For My Boy," in studio at the Idea Center in Cleveland for Applause Performances.

Saxophonist Bobby Selvaggio has been active in the Northeast Ohio jazz scene for more than 20 years. He released his first album in 1999, the year his son, Julian, was born.

“As soon as I had Julian, there was just a focus that immediately happened to me,” Selvaggio said. “When I saw… him being birthed and experiencing that and having to organize my life in a way to take care of an infant child, there was a switch that went off.”

Selvaggio, who is the director of jazz studies at Kent State University, recently released his 12th album, “Stories, Dreams, Inspirations: For My Boy,” celebrating fatherhood and the bond he shares with his son.

“We just have a really good relationship. He goes to Kent State, he wants to be like a writer and director of anime film. I'm proud to see that he's become a creative that knows what he wants and he's doing what he wants,” Selvaggio said.

Bobby Selvaggio

The album features Selvaggio’s 11-piece ensemble with top jazz players from Northeast Ohio and Pittsburgh, including Chris Coles, Brad Wagner, Tommy Lehman, Theron Brown and Chris Anderson.

Many players in his ensemble are former students, and he said he’s proud to foster the next generation of jazz leaders.

“I tell this to my students all the time: The most important thing you can do when you go out in the world is create community together with people. And that's what I feel we have done here in Northeast Ohio,” Selvaggio said.

The ensemble’s seven-track album, which Selvaggio composed and arranged, is inspired and dedicated to Julian. Selvaggio said this, coupled with including some of his best musician friends on the recording, has made the album his most personal record to date.

A staple of the local jazz scene

Selvaggio lives in Cuyahoga Falls and grew up in the local music scene, learning from his father, the legendary late jazz accordion and piano player Pete Selvaggio.

His father toured with “sweet jazz” pioneer Guy Lombardo and performed in the early Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, often playing out seven nights a week.

Selvaggio said being around music shaped him, but he didn’t fully understand or appreciate what his father did until he began studying music in college.

When Selvaggio began pursuing his bachelor’s degree in music performance at Kent State, he found his true passion: the saxophone.

“One of my main mentors, which was my predecessor at Kent State, is Chas Baker,” Selvaggio said. “He hit me to my first, really serious jazz record: Cannonball Adderley, ‘Radio Nights.’ When I first heard that, it was just like, ‘OK, that's what a saxophone should sound like. That's what music should sound like. That's what I want to do.’”

After graduating from Kent State, he moved to New York City to pursue a master’s degree in jazz performance from the Manhattan School of Music.

Living in New York gave Selvaggio opportunities to perform at famed jazz venues like the Birdland Jazz Club and the Village Vanguard.

Bobby Selvaggio performs with his 11-piece ensemble at Blu Jazz+ in Akron
Scott Ellis
Bobby Selvaggio, right, performs with his 11-piece ensemble, including jazz saxophonist Chris Coles, left, at Blu Jazz+ in Akron.

He moved back to Northeast Ohio in 1998 and dedicated himself to keeping jazz alive in Cleveland.

“There was always a plan to come back home,” Selvaggio said. “I honestly felt like I could create and do records and tours and do all of those things easier from here, because it was easier to afford than in New York City.”

The saxophonist said there has always been a vibrant jazz scene in Northeast Ohio. But in the 1990s, there weren’t many jazz performers writing new, modern music.

“I kind of was the first one to really dedicate myself to composing new, present-day music back in that time, and I was very fortunate to have some musicians around me that wanted to play that music,” he said.

After moving back to Cleveland, Selvaggio put jazz ensembles together and self-produced three records. He has seen the region’s jazz community grow and become more collaborative and community oriented.

“It's just exciting for me to have a scene that we can all be a part of what each other is doing, and that that's what makes a scene strong,” he said.

Drawing inspiration from parenthood

On his new album, Selvaggio writes about the creative process, reminiscing back to when he would watch his son play as a child.

Bobby Selvaggio and his son Julian pose for an old family portrait
Bobby Selvaggio
Bobby and Julian Selvaggio pose for a family portrait when his son was a child. The jazz artist's latest seven-track release is inspired by and dedicated to Julian, who is now in his 20s.

The song “Free Play” is based on Stephen Nachmanovitch's book of the same name, which details how adults lose their childlike sense of play.

“The whole book is about him trying to explain that process of what that is and how we can tap back into that,” Selvaggio said. “So, when I wrote this tune, it was thinking about my kid in a room, playing all by himself, creating universes.”

The track “Falling Up” is based on Shel Silverstein’s book and poem, which Selvaggio said are some of Julian’s favorites.

The song “Blue” features his wife, Chelsea Selvaggio, on non-lyrics vocals and harkens back to when Julian declared blue to be his dad’s favorite color.

Selvaggio said “Good People” is an older piece, dedicated to Julian’s growth from a compassionate and inclusive child to an overall “good person” as an adult.

He said younger musicians sometimes view starting a family and balancing their craft as a challenge, but for Selvaggio it was the exact opposite.

“It just made me focus and say, ‘OK, well, if I'm going to do these things that I want to do in my life, now's the time.’ I got myself together, and from that to this point, I've put myself in a position to do the things I have done,” he said.

Selvaggio said working as a musician, rather than a traditional 9-to-5 job, allowed him more time to spend with Julian.

“That, to me, was everything,” he said.

Watch the entire session of Applause Performances with Bobby Selvaggio in the video above or anytime with the PBS app.

Expertise: Audio storytelling, journalism and production
Brittany Nader is the producer of "Shuffle" on Ideastream Public Media. She joins "All Things Considered" host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene.