Music first took control of drummer Ray Rizzo when he was 4. “My parents had a console record player that I would just stand in front of, hypnotized.”
Craig Wagner realized the power of music in his life by high school, when he set aside his love of drawing for a growing infatuation with guitar, especially when in the hands of Eddie Van Halen, Andy Summers and Doc Watson.
But it wasn’t until keyboardist Todd Hildreth (whose first instrument was the accordion) was a student at Bellarmine that he fully understood that music would become the dominant force in his life. Originally an English major with goals of teaching and a serious piano hobby, Todd discovered jazz, and by his sophomore year he was a music major, performing regularly and rarely leaving the practice studio.
Ray and Craig were a few years behind Todd when they enrolled at Bellarmine, but it wasn’t long before the three were creating music together. Todd’s original idea was to form a piano trio with bass and drums, but after sharing some of his compositions with Craig, he changed his mind. “After taking them home for a week and practicing, Craig was playing my songs better than I was.” So guitar it would be, and by 1994, The Java Men were official.
In the decade that followed, the group produced three acclaimed albums (Letter to St Paul, Void and Orbituary), each bridging gaps between bebop, soul, bluegrass, groove and more, and were added to the regular rotation on college and public radio stations around the country. As they performed at venues as varied as Louisville’s long-gone Twice Told Coffee House (their original home base and the inspiration, along with the prehistoric man, of their name) and The Knitting Factory in New York City, they won audiences with their impeccable musicianship, collective sense of humor and enigmatic ability for perceptive group communication.
Their all-original music set them apart from most other jazz groups working, but it was the fact that their high-level music was accessible and appreciated by nearly any listener that earned them a place in Louisville music legend.
“The Java Men did a couple of cool things that no one else in Louisville managed, or even attempted,” says Jeffrey Lee Puckett, longtime pop music writer and critic at The Courier-Journal. “They made jazz fun again, taking it back to its rent-party days, and they brought the jazz and indie-rock communities together, creating a scene that benefited both camps.”
Though performances are infrequent these days due to geographic constraints, The Java Men can be seen a couple of times a year performing for an excited and hungry audience. Separately, however, Ray, Craig and Todd have never stopped making music—and creating opportunities for others to do so as well.
Craig Wagner ’93
Widely recognized as one of the nation’s most diverse and accomplished guitarists, Craig keeps quite possibly the busiest schedule in Louisville. While teaching at both Bellarmine and the University of Louisville, he can also be found playing with artists from Carly Johnson and Liberation Prophecy to the Louisville Orchestra. In 2014, Craig and Carly received the Louisville Music Award for Jazz Artist of the Year. Craig is featured on the Mel Bay DVDs Masters of Fingerstyle Guitar Volume 2 and Buscarino Players, and one of his compositions is featured in the foundational music education company’s Master Anthology of Jazz Guitar Solos.
Todd Hildreth ’89/’91
Todd Hildreth is a familiar face on Bellarmine’s campus, where as part of the Music Department faculty he has taught lessons and led ensembles for more than a decade. An in-demand piano player with several piano trio releases currently available, Todd is also regularly challenging standard musical conventions, usually in front of his two main groups, Squeeze-bot and Big Mama Thorazine. Over the course of his career, he has performed with, recorded with or opened for artists including The Coasters, The Platters, Martha and The Vandellas, Buckwheat Zydeco, The Monkees, Liberation Prophecy, Love Jones, King Kong, Brian Setzer, Liz Phair, Aretha Franklin and Nora Jones.
Ray Rizzo ’03
Now calling Brooklyn, N.Y., home, Ray’s performance schedule is varied and full. As the visionary behind the decade-long Motherlodge Arts exchange program, he has created collaboration opportunities for musicians and artists across the country, many of whom would otherwise never come together. He has recorded or played with Glen Hansard, Sam Amidon, Yo Yo Ma, Julia Stone and Trixie Whitley and currently plays in the bands Corporal, with the actor and musician Michael Shannon, and Mesiko. Ray also contributed drums, harmonium, harmonica and backup vocals on 2016’s Blue Mountain, the first new solo album in a decade by Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and Weir’s first record in 30 years to contain entirely new material.
By Mick Sullivan
Photos by Amber Estes and the 1993 Lance yearbook.
Mick Sullivan, who graduated from Bellarmine with a music degree in 2003, studied guitar with Craig Wagner for several years. During college, he played in the Bellar-mine Jazz Trio and the well-regarded Louisville band Fire the Saddle. Now manager of youth and public programs at the Frazier History Museum, he’s a member of the Tamerlane Trio, plays banjo with Squeeze-bot and is the creator and host of The Past and The Curious podcast.