Rio Clemente has played jazz piano on concert stages, in clubs and restaurants, in churches, even in supermarkets. But his venue for a recent performance tops them all: the East Room of the White House.
On Dec. 22, Clemente sat down at the historic 1938 Steinway piano in the East Room and played for two hours for an audience of visitors who had come to the White House for a holiday tour.
“I played mostly Christmas music, secular as well as Christmas carols,” said Clemente, a Morristown native who now lives in Randolph. “The people were very receptive that I played for. I got a standing (ovation) when I was finished.”
Clemente, a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, was in uniform for the performance.
“There were some military people there,” he said. “I went into all my patriotic medleys and ended with ‘America the Beautiful’ and ‘God Bless America.’
“I felt that I represented all Americans,” he said.
It was the dream of a lifetime, but one that took 10 years to come true. In 2001, U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, who represents Morris County, arranged for Clemente to give a White House performance, but after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the invite fell through.
Ten years went by. This year Clemente performed on Veterans Day at The Inn at Bowman’s Hill in New Hope, Pa. A friend, Amy Otey, was at the performance. She read about Clemente’s aborted White House invitation and had an idea.
Otey is a Grammy-nominated musician who performs for children with the band Miss Amy and Her Big Kids Band. In 2010, she and her band had played to 30,000 people at the annual Easter egg roll on the South Lawn of the White House. She knew what to do.
“I just made a couple calls and reached out to folks,” Otey said.
She soon got a call back from the White House office that arranges for visiting musicians and was told, “Actually we have a booking available to do part of the holiday tour.”
“I didn’t even ask him. I said, ‘Of course he’ll take it,’” Otey said.
Clemente traveled to D.C. with a friend the night before the performance. He got to the White House about 9 a.m., a half-hour before he was due.
“I got there early enough to do the tour,” he said. “It was unbelievable walking through those halls and thinking of the history of the men and women that served there. This was the epitome of patriotism.”
The piano was a famous one that had been donated when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. There are photos of piano-playing presidents Harry Truman and Richard Nixon using it.
“The piano was 10 feet long,” Clemente said. “It was beautiful. The sound was great.”
Not only that: “It was made in 1938. I was born in ’38. Seventy-two years and here I am,” he said.
“It was such an honor to play in the White House,” Clemente said. “It’s hard to explain the feeling that I had. First of all, I thought about my mother and father being immigrants, and here’s their son playing in the White House. Second was for all the veterans. I was in my Coast Guard Auxiliary uniform. It was a very, very proud moment.”
The two-hour performance seemed to go by much faster than that.
“It was over in a nanosecond,” Clemente said, a little wistfully. “The journey, the getting there, and you get to the peak. I don’t think I can top it.”
He drove home through a rainstorm.
“I couldn’t even see through the windshield, but it was sun shining in my car,” he said.
Otey was gratified to see the result of her efforts.
“He’s worked really, really hard,” she said. “He certainly deserves the spotlight on this one. All I did was make a connection based on some stuff that I had known.”
Since then, after posting pictures on his blog and on Facebook, he’s heard from lots of friends and well-wishers. He even got congratulations from the Coast Guard Auxiliary, which plans to feature the performance in its magazine Over the Bow.
“You just never know in this business what’s going to happen and when it’s going happen,” he said.