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How people-watching inspired the Hard Bop Messengers’ new musical odyssey 'Live at the Last Hotel'

John Covelli and the Hard Bop Messengers
John Schmitt
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John Covelli, a Peoria native, is returning to his hometown to perform "Live at the Last Hotel" at the Central Illinois Jazz Society.

“Live at the Last Hotel” is the Hard Bop Messengers’ musical exploration into telling the multiple stories of a hotel through the multiple perspectives of its employees.

The story is set against the backdrop provided by the Messengers, led by jazz musician and Peoria native, John Covelli.

Covelli’s concept was born from the Messengers’ residence at the real Last Hotel in downtown Saint Louis, Missouri. The group would play Friday nights in the hotel’s lobby, where some guests would cycle in and out, and some would stick around to watch and listen to the group’s performance, which showcased the classic hard bop jazz genre.

“People would be coming in, getting ready to go to the restaurant, or sitting at the bar and planning their evening,” Covelli said, recollecting his experiences in playing the residence at the Last Hotel. “People would just stick around and listen to us play, and I could tell that people that people enjoyed the music.”

The Messengers’ residence lasted from 2019 to March 13, 2020, where the group played their last gig at the hotel, before most live performances across the country were canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This did not stop the Messengers, who began to record the first song for the album, “The Lobby,” in quarantine.

“The Last Hotel loved it, they really loved the idea of a song about the lobby,” Covelli said. “It felt like a hard bop classic, and it gave me something to focus on, to keep writing music that reminded me of the hotel.”

Covelli’s tendency to “people-watch” during shows of their residency at the Last Hotel quickly resurfaced as the inspiration for an album-long story about the hotel, told from the perspectives of the various employees.

“The only way to get those ideas out was to put them to music,” Covelli said, illustrating why he created stories based on the various people he observed during the shows at the hotel. The album captures Covelli’s glimpses into the routines of the various staff members through musical motifs and lyrics.

“I started composing pieces of music that reminded me of these sights and sounds that I had witnessed,” Covelli said, citing one the examples of the hotels staff being a basis for one of the compositions on the album, “Such as the valets, running back and forth, just always on the go, and they get a breather for a second, and then off they go again, and I wanted to capture that musically.”

“Live at the Last Hotel” was eventually released digitally on June 3, 2022. Covelli and the Hard Bop Messengers will be playing the album in its entirety at the Central Illinois Jazz Society on August 21, 2022, at 6 p.m.

For more information on the concert, visit the Central Illinois Jazz Society's events page. For more information about the Hard Bop Messengers and how to listen to their music, visit their site.

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Holden Kellogg is an audio producer at WCBU.