Tuesday, July 16, 2019
Tom Rigney Tells All from Baseball to Flambeau
Tom Rigney and Flambeau have been playing infectious Cajun and zydeco music at the Sun Valley Jazz and Music Festival for 10 years.
Sunday, October 21, 2018


Tom Rigney took up a fiddle to escape the long shadow of his father’s Major League Baseball career.

But it was the things that he learned from Bill Rigney’s career playing baseball that informed Tom’s career as one of premier blues and roots music violinists in the nation.

Tom Rigney, who performs with Flambeau, told his story for the first time at the Sun Valley Jazz and Music Festival this weekend. And it was a story that included Dizzy Gillespie and even a howling dog.

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Rigney recounted how his father Bill Rigney played shortstop for the New York Giants’ memorial pennant winning team of 1951 before going onto manage the Giants, California Angels and Minnesota Twins.

He had a natural baseball sense and a deep love for the game.

Tom said he literally grew up on the Polo Grounds, shagging flies with center fielder Willie Mays and his brother Bill Rigney Jr., who followed his father into baseball.

But Tom Rigney balked at following in his father’s cleats.

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“He had such a popular and successful career that I wanted to get as far away from his shadow as I could,” he told a full house at the Sun Valley Opera House this weekend.

But, while Tom would go on to become a major part of the San Francisco Bay Area roots music scene, he never even played an instrument until he was in college.

The turning moment came when he attended a concert featuring violinist Isaac Stern during college.

“I was mesmerized,” he said. “I couldn’t believe anyone could do something that well. That he could communicate with such ferocity—I thought, ‘Maybe I can do that!’”

Rigney bought a $50 violin while pursuing a Masters degree in Fine Arts at Harvard University and began “scratching on it.”

And soon he found himself opening for the Sons of the Pioneers as leader of his own band, a legendary bluegrass/western swing band called Back in the Saddle.

He toured the world with Queen Ida’s Bon Temps Zydeco Band in 1983 and 1984, during which time he developed a love of Cajun, Zydeco and roots rock and roll. He parlayed that love into the band The Sun Dogs and later Flambeau.

And today he oozes with swamp fever—so much so that those attending the Sun Valley Jazz Festival would swear he grew up in the bayou.

 He’s written beautiful haunting waltzes like “Catalona,” which he plays while twirling around on stage his red boots barely touching the floor and his wispy white hair catching the breeze he creates. And several of his tunes, including “Back Porch Blues,” have climbed to No. 1 on the XM Sirius Satellite Radio Bluesville Chart.

 And he and his bandmates-- guitarist Danny Caron, boogie pianist Caroline Dahl, bass player Steve Parks and drummer Brent Rapone—have easily become one of the biggest draws at the Sun Valley Jazz and Music Festival.

Rigney said he knew he was ready for prime time when jamming with his cousin and other musicians at his uncle’s house. As they played, he recalled his uncle’s basset hound began howling in time to the music. Emboldened, the musicians began playing faster and faster, to which the dog let out with a mighty howl, and his uncle came crashing out the door.

“For g’s sake,” he told Rigney. “Play something the dog doesn’t know!”

Rigney recounted how he got to play several sets with his idol—Grammy Award-winning fiddler Vassar Clements, who fathered Hillbilly Jazz, an improvisational style blending swing, hot jazz and bluegrass.

When Clements saw that Rigney was trying to copy him, he set him straight.

“It's flattering to me when I hear about other musicians who want to sound like me, who want to steal my ideas," he said. "But Tom, you have something inside you, and if you want to be an artist you have to find your own voice, not my voice."

Another time, Rigney recounted, he had the opportunity to play with jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. But the jazz trumpeter was too busy playing cards to have time for the young fiddler.

When it finally took time to take the stage, Rigney recounted, all hell broke loose as Gillespie in his booming voice demanded to know where his horn was. One sheepish young man ran up to him carrying the horn as if it were the Holy Grail, apologizing profusely for having misplaced it.

“I don’t care about the horn, son,” Gillespie told him. “It’s the cards in the case I’m concerned about.”

Rigney said his father was an avid storyteller. One time he called his New York Giants in his office and told them he knew in no uncertain terms that seven of them had broken curfew the night before.

“If you confess, nothing will happen,” Rigney told his team. “If you don’t, I’ll fine you $50.”

Rigney put the offer on the table three times. Finally, he pulled a baseball from his pocket signed by the seven players who had stayed out past curfew.

“I gave the man who runs the hotel elevator a baseball and told him to get the autographs of anyone who came in past midnight,” he said.

Tom said his father often entertained former President Dwight Eisenhower while the Angels had spring training in Palm Springs.

After the President kept marveling that he could turn raw kids into a cohesive team capable of winning games, Rigney put his cap on the President’s head and asked him to manage the club for a few innings.

“I wouldn’t know what to do with these young kids,” Eisenhower protested.

“There's not much to it!” Rigney told him. “Gen. Eisenhowever, you did a pretty good job on D-Day!”

 “My dad loved what he did and that’s what he taught me--to find something you love, follow your passion and don’t let obstacles get in the way,” Rigney said.

“….And, by all means, play something the dog doesn’t know!”

Sherry St. Clair’s sister Cindy Kocher, who comes out every year from Florida for the festival, said Rigney’s talk was one of the highlights of this year’s festival for her.

“We see these guys play all the time, but we don’t know much about them,” she said. “Tom is a man who is one with his instrument—just as the Midiri Bothers are one with their instruments.”


The Sun Valley Jazz and Music Festival concludes today at Sun Valley Resort with several jazz gospel sets beginning at 9 a.m., a tribute to Sinatra and more. For information, visit www.sunvalleyjazz.com.



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