Nightline Playlist: Page McConnell

Asking Page McConnell to name his favorite songs is as difficult as making him choose which of the 88 notes of the piano keyboard he plays he likes the most.

Not only does he have difficulty choosing particular songs by a particular artist, the musician, whose improvisational wizardry with the jam band Phish earned him the sobriquet "Chairman of the Boards," is vexed if asked to decide which performance of a particular song he likes the best.

Still, when it comes to his work, McConnell is willing to say he's partial to the cut "Maid Marian" from his own eponymous solo album released this year.

"Favorites? Boy, there's so many," McConnell laughed, when asked to produce a list of must-listen-to songs.


As for the 60's and 70's iconic jam band -- the Grateful Dead -- McConnell explains, "when I would see them in concert, it would be a different song every night that would be my favorite of the evening. It wasn't any one song in particular that kept me coming back."

Likewise, it isn't any one song that kept devoted fans of Phish following the band from venue to venue, but rather the promise that McConnell and his band mates would weave a new musical tapestry at each concert, improvising new and different riffs on each song.

Improvisation is a style of music McConnell has embraced, studied and practiced for most of his life.

Born in Philadelphia in 1963 into a "musical family" of five, McConnell grew up in New Jersey where his doctor father Jack worked for the McNeil Pharmaceutical Co. (later Johnson & Johnson) and helped develop Tylenol. As a young doctor, Jack McConnell lived in New Orleans and became a devotee of Dixieland Jazz, which was the first musical genre Page McConnell remembers influencing him deeply from an early age.

It is a style of music McConnell still loves today and earned Louis Armstrong's "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?" a spot at the top of McConnell's own "Nightline" Playlilst. In fact, near the end of Phish's final tour in 2004, Jack McConnell joined his son onstage for a rocking performance of the Dixieland classic, "Bill Bailey."

McConnell remembers his childhood -- he has an older brother and younger sister -- as almost like a Norman "Rockwell painting. We went to church. I sang in the choir for years. A nice, loving household with a dog, a cat and always a lot of music around." They all played instruments, each taking turns at the piano. "My dad also plays a little banjo and guitar, my mom plays the mandolin. So there was always music in the house."

At four, Page first began learning piano alongside his older brother, and a bit of sibling rivalry only encouraged the boys to practice more than just a little bit. Though the first record McConnell recalls buying was the Archies' pop sensation, "Sugar, Sugar," it was rock-and-roll that he began trying to imitate and adapt for the piano as a middle school student.

"I listened to rock, and so that was what I was trying to play on the piano," he said. "And most of the time, I was playing by myself. I didn't have bands that I was playing with growing up, so I learned to try to adapt and play these songs that were guitar songs on the piano, and sing them."

While many standards of the rock-and-roll 60s and 70s were known for their electrified guitar licks, Elton John's hard-driving keyboards captured young Page's ear in an important and unexpected way, at a local movie theater.

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