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Changing keys 

Sal Gentile combines jazz licks with restaurant manager duties

It's an old joke among musicians: If you want to starve, play blues. If you want to starve to death, play jazz.

Sal Gentile is a live jazz guitarist. Armed with his trusty Gibson Super 400 guitar, he's not the kind who plays lightweight instrumentals or contemporary R&B that masquerade as jazz. Gentile is a player with a well-schooled approach to improvisation and an understanding of jazz music in its historical context.

Gentile plays frequently in the north and northwest suburbs of Atlanta. He has weekly gigs Wednesday at Comeaux's Louisiana Grill & Bar in Alpharetta, Thursday at My Cousin Vinny's in Marietta, and a Sunday brunch show at Mittie's Tea Room in Roswell.

So why is this man managing a restaurant?

Gentile, 57, a lifelong musician, also has taken on the role of manager at Comeaux's.

"I jazzed myself right out of work," Gentile says. "I got so involved in the jazz thing, I don't want to go backward [musically] ... It's a funny thing about jazz -- once you get involved with it there's no turning back. You hear all these wonderful chord changes and then other songs seem trite."

However, Gentile explains, at a time when his passion for jazz guitar is unabated -- he says he has "a better concept of guitar" than at any point in his life -- he's finding it harder than ever to chase down enough gigs to support his six-string habit. Thus, though he's not starving to death, Gentile is forced to work both inside and outside of the music business.

Actually, Gentile is no stranger to nonmusical employment. A New York native, he moved to Atlanta in 1985 from New Orleans, where he played music full time. Once in Atlanta, though, Gentile found himself doing what it took to pay the bills, which included selling insurance and securities and working as a supervisor of a janitorial crew.

He landed a steady musical gig at Comeaux's in November 1996, and with the additional income from teaching guitar, Gentile was able to make a living in recent years solely as a guitarist.

It's a vocation that began at age 13, when he heard a friend playing and was hooked. Gentile ran a paper route and mopped floors in a deli to help pay the $3 it cost for each of his lessons. Meanwhile, he was learning jazz and pop standards such as "Misty," "Girl from Impanema" and "Fly Me to the Moon."

By the time he was 17, Gentile was gigging regularly, setting a dubious record at Bayside High School in Queens for Monday morning tardiness, thanks to a weekly Sunday booking. He also played a week at the famed Apollo Theatre. As the only white person in the building, he recalls fondly that he was accepted by fellow performers and the audience. He also remembers, however, showing up for his first gig in an austere black jacket, tie and white shirt and feeling decidedly unhip to the fashion of the moment. The next night, he arrived in green pants, an orange shirt and purple sweater and "fit right in," he recalls with a smile.

Gentile also played with Johnny Maestro and the Crests (of Sixteen Candles fame), Michael Anthony and others. It was in his early 30s, while living in New Orleans, that Gentile decided to get serious about jazz guitar.

"I told myself that if I was going to stay in the business, I'd have to become a more legitimate musician," Gentile recalls. That led him more intensely into jazz and a deepening appreciation not only for such guitarists as Wes Montgomery, but also for saxophonists Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.

At this point, Gentile may not know what professional direction awaits him. He doesn't even know if he'll be able to keep playing all of his current gigs. But clearly, he's not ready to hang up his instrument.

"Many musicians play until they die. They don't retire. I hope I can do that, too," Gentile says. "I just feel guilty because I'm not able to practice as much as I did. I don't have the same chops, so I'm making more use of what I have."

Sal Gentile performs Wednesdays at Comeaux's Louisiana Grill & Bar in Alpharetta (770-442-2524), Thursdays at My Cousin Vinny's in Marietta (770-423-0391) and Sundays, for brunch, at Mittie's Tea Room in Roswell (770-594-8822).

This column is a weekly feature covering music outside the Perimeter. E-mail or mail "outside" music news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045.

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