George Anastasia has written about organized crime for the Inquirer and in a series of books, analyzed it on television and radio, and discussed it in a series of YouTube videos.
He's never had a musical soundtrack for his work.
"Mobsters and the Songs They Love" will make its debut Friday at the Pitman Gallery and Art Center in Anastasia's hometown. The program, a mix of spoken word and jazz, will feature Anastasia recounting tales of organized crime with musical interludes by saxophonist/flautist Denis DiBlasio and guitarist Brian Betz.
The show is a chronological overview of the mob in such cities as Philadelphia, New Orleans, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Havana that looks at the cultural connections between organized crime and the music of the day. "The mob doesn't have a direct impact on music," Anastasia says, "but the point is to show what was happening in music and the underworld in each era and how and why they intersected."
Speakeasies in Chicago, for example, served as jazz venues, Anastasia points out, and performers like the Rat Pack were instrumental in establishing Las Vegas as an entertainment and tourist destination.
"Solo jazz piano grew out of the bordellos in New Orleans," DiBlasio says, with musicians providing entertainment for the customers. "The mob knew that music made their scene better."
Anastasia says the show will be as Philadelphia-centric as possible, discussing locals from Angelo Bruno to Joey Merlino. He'll touch on a meeting of the top mobsters in the nation, including Al Capone, in Atlantic City in 1929, "and the fact that Capone was arrested in Philadelphia on his way back to Chicago."
Betz and DiBlasio will perform the songs as instrumentals, reflecting the different eras of the 20th century. Selections will include Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train," Benny Goodman's "Stompin' at the Savoy" and Frank Sinatra's version of "Fly Me to the Moon" and will feature commentary on the songs.
"This is a work in progress. We've talked about doing it for years," says Betz, of Mantua Township, who added there's the chance of performing the program in other venues.
Betz, Anastasia, and DiBlasio are friends and professional colleagues. DiBlasio and Betz have performed and recorded albums together, and all three teach at Rowan University; Betz and DiBlasio in music and Anastasia in communications and creative arts and in the Department of Law and Public Safety.
Anastasia and DiBlasio also share family ties. "My wife's grandmother and Denny's grandmother were sisters," Anastasia says.
"We'll go out to dinner two or three times a month," says DiBlasio, who served as Maynard Ferguson's musical director in the 1980s and who has performed with such musicians as Tony Bennett, McCoy Tyner, and Clark Terry. "He comes to my concerts and I go to his talks on organized crime."
"Inevitably, we're talking about music and the mob," Anastasia says.
Anastasia's journey to becoming a chronicler of organized crime was indirect. He majored in French at Dartmouth College, where he graduated in 1969. That's when he got his start in newspapers – as a sportswriter.
In 1974, Anastasia moved to the Inquirer, where he stayed until 2012. He covered the New Jersey referendum in which voters approved legalized gambling in Atlantic City in 1976 and the opening of the first casino two years later. "My mob coverage grew out of Atlantic City," Anastasia says. "The [March 1980] Bruno hit was part of that. One motive was he wasn't taking advantage of [Atlantic City] opportunities and letting New York families come in. He was very laissez faire and a lot of his guys didn't like it."
Anastasia's coverage led to the publication of Blood and Honor, his first book on organized crime, in 1991. "Forget about it! This is the best gangster book ever written," Jimmy Breslin said in a memorable blurb.
"Once I wrote Blood and Honor, [Inquirer] editors decided it would be a beat worth covering," Anastasia says.
In real life and the arts, Anastasia has found crime stories still attract readers and viewers. "America has always been fascinated with the outlaw, from Billy the Kid to Al Capone to The Sopranos," Anastasia says.
At the same time, he wants to avoid romanticizing mobsters and their lives of crime in Friday's program.
"The idea is not to glamorize it, but to put it in a social context," Anastasia says.
MUSIC AND MAFIA
"Mobsters and the Songs They Love"