Frank Rossi, founder of the Pittsburgh Banjo Club, dies at 83
As is tradition, the Pittsburgh Banjo Club will practice Wednesday night at the Allegheny Elks Lodge on the city’s North Side.
The group will attract a crowd of people of all ages and walks of life who come for the camaraderie, cheap drinks and, of course, the banjos.
But absent on stage — however, in the hearts of many — will be the club’s founder, Frank Rossi.
Francis E. Rossi, known as Frank, died Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. He was 83.
“He’s finally in the big banjo club in the sky,” said Norm Azinger, the club’s musical director. “Frank was our front man. He knew what he was doing.”
Azinger and his wife JoAnn, of Braddock Hills, were friends with Rossi for three decades. They knew each other before Rossi, an Ambridge native who worked as an air traffic controller in New York, retired and moved back to the area in 1988. When Rossi returned, he called Norm Azinger about starting a banjo club here.
After finding other enthusiasts using classified newspaper ads and word-of-mouth, the Pittsburgh Banjo Club was formed Dec. 15, 1988, and most Wednesdays since, they’ve practiced before a crowd as various venues in and around the city. The club has used the Elks lodge for about 15 years, and its practices have become a mainstay of the North Side.
“Frank was a showman, and everybody loved the show,” Northside Leadership Conference Director Mark Fatla said. “He knew how to make people happy. No one goes to banjo nights saying ‘I wish I wouldn’t have done that.’”
As director of an organization that promoted the neighborhood, Fatla said he was thankful for what the club — and Rossi — embodied.
“Frank was what the North Side values above everything else. He was a character,” Fatla said. “He was a good friend and created something tremendous.”
“Frank was just… a dynamic leader,” JoAnn Azinger said. “We lovingly called him our dictator.”
Born in 1935 in Ambridge, Rossi and his family moved to Greenfield while he was in high school. He was a U.S. Air Force veteran, according to a biography prepared by the banjo club.
He married Rita Besavitch in 1953, they had three daughters, and settled on Long Island, N.Y., because Rossi worked as an air traffic controller at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
In the early 1970s, Rossi and Mike Currao met. Currao taught Rossi to play the banjo and encouraged him to join the Long Island Banjo Society, Currao said.
“I brought him into the banjo world, and Frank just ran with it,” said Currao, now 79 and living in Punta Gorda, Fla.
Rossi would joke that being an air traffic controller was easy compared to taking banjo lessons, Currao said.
“He was probably my most intense student and the most willing to learn anything,” Currao said.
Rossi was active in the Long Island Banjo Society and also was editor on The Resonator, the magazine of Banjos Unlimited, which he also led as president.
Rossi booked more than 40 shows a year for the Pittsburgh Banjo Club. The club charges for a performance, but donate all of the proceeds to charities.
JoAnn Azinger said the club has raised more than $140,000 over the last 30 years.
In 2001, Rossi was inducted into the National Four-String Banjo Hall of Fame.
He was also chosen as a 2009 Jefferson Awards winner for his work with the Pittsburgh Banjo Club. The Jefferson Awards program is part of a national volunteer recognition program founded in 1972 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, U.S. Senator Robert Taft Jr., and Sam Beard.
His wife died in 2017 and his health had steadily declined since her death, the Azingers said. Rossi hadn’t been as involved in the club in the last few years.
On Wednesday night, the banjo club will rehearse as usual at the Elks, Norm Azinger said.
“If it was Frank (he’d say) just continue what we’re doing and have a good time playing the banjo,” Azinger said.
Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-487-7208, [email protected] or via Twitter @TribDavidson.