Johnny Costa

About Johnny Costa

Best known as the music director for the acclaimed children's television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Pittsburgh-born pianist Johnny Costa was an immensely gifted jazz instrumentalist in the vein of his idol Art Tatum. Initially emerging as a performer in the 1950s, Costa issued several well-regarded albums before joining host Fred Rogers on his television show. From 1968 until Costa's death from aplastic anemia in 1996, he and Rogers made jazz a core focal point of the production, a choice that helped define the show's warm, welcoming tone. While on the show, he continued to perform live and record, issuing Johnny Costa Plays Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Jazz in 1984, as well as a series of urbane standards albums for the Chiaroscuro label. Born John Costanza in 1922, Costa grew up in Pittsburgh, where he initially started out on the accordion at age seven. As a teenager, his band director discovered he had perfect pitch and encouraged him to take up the piano. Costa excelled quickly, studying with a teacher who had also taught noted Pittsburgh concert pianist Oscar Levant. It was also as a teenager that he started playing jazz after his father introduced him to the music of Art Tatum. After high school, he enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University, where he earned degrees in both music and education. Following his graduation, he worked as the house pianist for a local radio station, a job that eventually led to a similar position as music director for KDK-TV in Pittsburgh. During his 15 years at KDK, Costa also continued to play jazz, recording a handful of albums for the Savoy, Coral, and Dot labels, including 1955's The Amazing J. Costa and his Trio and 1959's In My Own Quiet Way. Costa's career continued to rise throughout the early '60s as he toured internationally and worked as music director for The Mike Douglas Show. However, looking to spend more time with his family, he ultimately decided to base himself in Pittsburgh. Ironically, it was after returning to his hometown that he achieved his biggest fame, working alongside Fred Rogers as the music director, arranger, and pianist for the influential children's television series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. From 1968 through the 1990s, Costa supplied all the music for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Both Costa and Rogers were adamant that jazz would be the show's core sound as it was contrary to the simplicity of most children's music and, they believed, encouraged children's creativity. For the show, Costa often played live in the studio, working with his trio featuring bassist Carl McVicker, Jr. and drummer Bobby Rawsthorne. They supplied the show's iconic main theme, as well as various recognizable sound elements including the trolley whistle, Mr. McFeely's "speedy delivery" music, and Rogers' entry and exit themes. In 1984, Costa issued Johnny Costa Plays Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Jazz, which featured songs from the show and was the final release on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Records. Costa continued to perform and record outside of the Mister Rogers show, issuing a handful of highly regarded sessions for Chiaroscuro, including 1991's Classic Costa, 1992's Flying Fingers, and 1994's A Portrait of George Gershwin. Dream: Johnny Costa Plays Johnny Mercer arrived in 1996, the same year that the pianist died from aplastic anemia at age 74. Following his death, pianist Michael Moricz took over as musical director for Mister Rogers, although much of Costa's music continued to be used in the show's production. ~ Matt Collar

Arnold, PA, United States
January 18, 1922

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