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Father John D'Amico, jazz piano player, composer and teacher


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If his smile was like a warm hug, as a fan put it, his piano playing was like a mellow caress.

Father John D'Amico was not only an outstanding jazz pianist who gathered fans wherever he played throughout the city, but he was also a warm and fuzzy friend and a man devoted to social causes.

When he died Thursday in Lankenau Hospital, doctors and nurses wept.

“They really loved him," said his wife, Kathleen. “He was the kind of person you really liked. Since he died, I've been getting hundreds of messages. All said, he was a loving, kind person, very warm, and when he smiled it was like a warm hug."

John Aloysius D'Amico, a former Roman Catholic priest, was 74 and lived in Wynnefield.

He played his mellow style of jazz at numerous venues throughout the region, and as far away as Cannes, France, and was also a prolific composer and teacher.

His last gig was at the 23rd Street Cafe on Oct. 1. He was having breathing problems, and his wife took him to the hospital. It was discovered he had cancer.

He died the day he expected to leave the hospital. “He was anxious to go home and play his piano," Kathleen said.

John was a probation officer for the Court of Common Pleas in drug and alcohol rehabilitation for 23 years. Over the years, he was also involved in numerous civic enterprises, including the Opportunities Industrialization Centers, the job-training program founded by the Rev. Leon Sullivan. Because he was fluent in Spanish, which he mastered in two summers in Puerto Rico, many of his causes involved the Hispanic community.

John performed solo and also with his trio, consisting of Kenny Davis on bass and Gregory McDonald on drums. Over the years, he performed with some of the jazz greats, including Lionel Hampton, Jimmie Oliver, Bootsie Barnes and Philly Joe Jones.

Kathleen, his wife of 44 years, was a graphic artist and also recorded many of her husband's works. His major CDs are “Darius Walk," “Street Blues" and “Live at the Painted Bride."

He created the music and lyrics for more than 45 compositions. He performed and taught music appreciation at Cabrini College and Immaculata University. His wife wrote the book and he wrote the music for a musical, “Daniel's Song."

His wife said she took a call after his death from Cabrini College, which wanted to schedule him to play for a Christmas party. She had to cancel a number of other scheduled gigs.

John was born in Philadelphia to Nicholas and Josephine D'Amico. He began playing classical music on the piano at age 6. He studied at Curtis Institute.

He graduated from the former St. Thomas More High School in 1957. He was president of the student council, captain of the band, a performer in the school show, a member of the debate team and a writer for the school newspaper.

He went on to St. Joseph's University, but during his junior year, he decided on the priesthood and entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.

Anyone who thinks of a seminary as a deadly serious environment didn't reckon on John D'Amico. He conducted and arranged music for the Borromean Chorus, and played Howard Hill in the school's production of “The Music Man."

He received a bachelor's degree in philosophy and master's degrees in theology and liturgical music. He was ordained a priest in 1966, and was sent to Kennett Square to be assistant pastor of St. Patrick's Church.

In a way, it was an ideal venue for him, because his knowledge of Spanish allowed him to minister to the needs of the mushroom workers, many of whom came from Spanish-speaking countries. He established a bilingual Mass to accommodate them.

While in Kennett Square, he met a vivacious blond woman named Kathleen Hastings, daughter of a woman who represented Planned Parenthood and who had enlisted John's help in contacting the mushroom workers.

By this time, John was hoping to be allowed to be a priest without a parish, but the Archdiocese would have none of it.

“It was clear to me that I just wanted to be an ordinary human being, get a job, earn a living and let whatever comes come," he told Daily News writer Nels Nelson in 1985.

He left the priesthood and began dating Kathleen, who was an Episcopalian. On Sept. 24, 1969, they went to Elkton, Md., and got married. They moved to an old house in Wynnefield that was in dire need of renovations and eventually had three children.

Over the years, John received numerous honors, including the John Coltrane Award for Outstanding Achievement in Jazz.

Besides his wife, he is survived by two sons, Darius and Michael; a daughter, Madeleine Spencer; two sisters, Christine DeVault and Margaret Lacey; and four grandchildren.

Services: Memorial service 4 p.m. Nov. 17 at Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, Carpenter Lane and Lincoln Drive, Mount Airy.

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