Romano played, to my ears, like a slightly melancholic Oscar Peterson. Occasionally inspired, he was always efficient: he made the refrains run on time. To be honest, I’d only gone to see him because I liked the whimsy in his moniker—“The Romano Mussolini All-Stars.” They weren’t all-stars, just solid Italian molto hip cats; the only star quality, as he recognized early on in his career, was the enduring potency, or at any rate curiosity value, of his pa’s name. But the designation hinted at least at the possibility of some A-list combo of second-generation dictatorial talent. There was a comic in London in those days called Bing Hitler, but I don’t believe he was a blood relative—and, come to think about it, he’s since dropped the Hitler handle and gone on to great success as CBS late-night host Craig Ferguson. The Führer and Eva Braun died without issue and, according to most experts, without much heavy petting. But if only the Mussolini All-Stars had lived up to their billing: Artie Hitler on clarinet, Miles Tse Tung on trumpet, Woody Stalin, Buddy Franco …
I was introduced to him after the show and, of course, everyone was way too cool to ask about Dad or the old days. So instead he made the kind of standard jazz small talk that non–jazz buffs find so tedious—all Dizzy this and Monk that—but with a beguiling accent that made me swear at one point he’d referenced a song called “Fascisnatin’ Rhythm.” The conversation had a surreal frisson, like running into Uday and Qusay at a pro-celeb golf tournament and chitchatting about Tiger as you play a couple of holes. If you want to escape the sins of the father, going into jazz is a smart move: unlike men bent on world domination, which by definition obliges one to keep an eye on the far horizon, not least when posing for official portraits, the jazz scene tends to the self-absorbed. Half these fellows are barely cognizant of what continent they’re on, never mind who’s oppressing it. During his sojourn in Italy forty-five years ago, Chet Baker played a stint with Romano at the Bussola in Viareggio. There’s a famous story that, after their first set together, it was pointed out to Chet whose son Romano was. The trumpeter went over to the piano and commiserated: “Gee, it’s a drag about your old man.” Romano always professed to have no memory of the exchange—“Chet and I never discussed politics”—but Caterina Valente, the Continental chanteuse with whom they toured, claims to have been present and insists it happened.
The prototype fascist’s youngest son was named for the glorious new imperium already under way by the time he was born in 1927. Romano had a happy childhood in a close-knit family: four siblings, one duce, one mom, two tortoises, two ponies, two parrots, two gazelles, two lions, a monkey, and a jaguar. The youngster had fond memories of his pa’s signature pose—fists on hips, jutting jaw, looking like either a visionary leader or a bitch waiter at Coconut Grove when you send back the curly endive. Apparently, Dad liked to adopt the stance not just to whip up the masses below the balcony but around the house as well, though more “playfully.”
They were a musical family. When he wasn’t dictating, Benito liked to play violin for hours on end. But, even at a young age, musically Romano disdained Il Duce in favor of Il Duke: his older brother Vittorio gave him a record of Ellington doing “Black Beauty,” the first jazz Romano ever heard, and he was hooked. Being decadent and Negro, it wasn’t the easiest music to come by in Fascist Italy, but Romano sought it out wherever he could. “I remember the first time I heard a Louis Armstrong record,” he said. “The sound was so beautiful I cried.” American 78s were available in Rome under Italianized names—Louis Armstrong was sold as “Luigi Fortebraccio.” His brother Vittorio would return from trips abroad with the latest Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Romano got more pleasure listening to King Oliver than his dad ever got from listening to King Victor Emmanuel.