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People: Jazz with a punch

Pittsburgh native Ron Affif recalls the influence of his boxer father

Thursday, June 17, 1999

By Peter B. King, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Like father like son. Ron Affif may not be a boxer like his late father, Charles, was. But the 33-year-old guitarist, originally from Banksville, approaches his craft with the same nerve and drive that made his father a top welterweight and middleweight contender in the '40s and '50s. On Affif's most recent CD -- a live date called "Ringside" that showcases his masculine, risk-taking, yet nuanced, guitar style -- that's Pop on the back cover in his heyday, in boxing trunks and gloves.

Maybe it's the fact that Affif comes home to perform in the Mellon Jazz Festival this weekend that is making him particularly emotional when he talks about his dad. Or could it be because Sunday is Father's Day?

"He was the sweetest guy, he really was. His last option was always violence," Affif says on the phone from his Brooklyn apartment in his loquacious, enthusiastic hipster-speak. "He'd always be, 'Come on, be cool, relax,' until the guy became a real drag, and then the guy had made a big mistake. He was messin' with the wrong cat.

"But my old man, boy I wish he was around. 'Cause he was really into it, man. He'd sit there and listen to me practice when I couldn't even play. He just dug the dedication. He could relate to that. He'd always tell me, 'If I would've trained like you practice, I would have been champion of the world.' "

Long after his fighting career ended, after he lost an eye to the game, Affif was a local hero, working as a whiskey salesman for Hiram Walker, teaching his sons enough boxing to get by when they inevitably were challenged because of their old man. And Affif (who used to hang with Miles Davis, himself an amateur boxer) also passed along his love of jazz. He got his younger buddy Tony Mowod, now WDUQ's "Nightside" DJ, interested in the music, Affif says. And he did the same for his kids.

"He had all these records around the house that my brother, Mark, started listening to. Mark had a guitar in the house. I guess I was around 12, and I picked up his guitar; I just had an urge to play an instrument.

"And then about maybe a few months later my uncle [guitarist Ron Anthony] was home -- I guess he was on the road with George Shearing or somebody -- and he gave me a lesson. Every year he'd come home at least once and say, "OK that sounds great, but I think you need to go to another teacher now," or "I think you need to work on this."

Affif started performing as a teen-ager with some Pittsburghers who would later make names for themselves, like guitarist EricSusoeff, bassist Dave Pellow and pianist Dave Budway. In fact, Budway will perform with Affif this weekend.

Fresh out of high school, Affif went to Los Angeles rather than take the music scholarship Duquesne University had offered him. "I was already playing out a lot at night, and that's what I wanted to do, just be out there working. So my uncle said, 'Well, man, you should come out here. You can just sub for me.' "

Eventually, Affif felt he needed to move to New York City.

"New York is where all the other guys are, and that's what brings out the most of what you have. I mean there are guys who play great everywhere. But in New York, there's just more of them.

"And it's a great time in New York, too. We've been doing this gig every Monday for five years at the Zinc Bar. Last night we played, and Roy Hargrove was there playing. David Sanchez was there, just hanging out. Russell Malone came in and was tearin' it apart, soundin' great. George Benson has come in, Natalie Cole has come in and sung with us, 'cause we get write-ups in the Times a lot. It's a fantasy world, man. And then, of course, there's girls all over the place."

Affif has developed chops to spare; for example, listen to him burn through a lickety-split version of "If I Were a Bell" on "Ringside," the latest of his four Pablo CDs. But he doesn't consider himself a virtuoso, a la Benson or Pat Martino or the late Joe Pass. The important thing, he says, is to have the guts to develop your own sound, and to allow yourself to make some mistakes getting there.

"I think a lot of young players are too caught up in sounding perfect all the time. I think our whole society's like that. It's like, heaven forbid if you look bad."

A kind of creeping conformity is on the loose, he believes

"Look at the movies -- they're remaking TV shows. What's that about? It's ridiculous. Heaven forbid someone should come up with an original concept. 'Cause no one with money is gonna want to invest in it, 'cause no one has any cojones, excuse the Italian side of my family."

With all its inherent uncertainty, is Affif happy living the jazz life? Need you ask?

"I'm livin' a dream world, man. I'm like one of the luckiest people on the earth. I mean, growing up in Pittsburgh, did I ever think there'd be a day when George Benson would have me open for him in France, playin' a Roman-built amphitheatre? Being of Italian descent, maybe somebody of my heritage helped make that thing, [although] it was probably slaves ..."

Affif mentions he wishes his father could see him perform this weekend. It takes him back to when he was a teen-ager, and his dad would come to his gigs.

"I'd be sitting there thinking, 'Man, he's still the baddest cat in the room, check him out.' "

Ron Affif plays at 9 p.m. Saturday at the James St. Restaurant, North Side, accompanying Maureen and David Budway. There is no cover; 412-323-2222. On Sunday, he'll lead a group at 7 p.m. at the Holiday Inn, Oakland, with David Budway, Roger Humphries and a bassist to be announced. No cover; 412-343-9555.

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