The Blue Note catalog is a buffet table that attracts and satisfies an endless series of jazz noshers, and the ones that stay longest and dig deepest into the more obscure salads will wind up discovering this funky Philly pianist. He backed up the superb guitarist Grant Green as well as providing the endless cycles of chord changes required by participants in tenor saxophone battles such as Ben Webster and Illinois Jacquet. Acea also had his jive side, evidenced by his involvement with the zany band of Dizzy Gillespie and its off-the-wall vocalist Babs Gonzales. Acea, who is sometimes mistaken for the rhythm and blues performer Johnny Ace plus a typo, came from a Cuban family who settled in Philadelphia around 1910. Census forms from that city in the '20s indicate there were spelling problems even back then, with both the pianist and his father's name listed as Adrino Acea, which could mean that the performer often credited as John Adriano Acea added an extra letter to his name, or the census taker left one out. Acea was born with rheumatic fever, and the original prediction from doctors was that he would not survive his childhood, let alone the all-night jam sessions that lay ahead. He did much better than anyone expected, became known to most of his friends as simply "John" and picked up several musical nicknames including "Johnny Acey" and "Acey."
While not exactly the most famous jazz pianist to come out of Philadelphia, legends still abound about the man's talent. It is said that he was able to play all of the instruments in the music store, but he quickly picked up a reputation for piano as well as an uncanny knack for backing up singers. He would eventually record with greats such as Gloria Lynne, Diana Washington, Ruth Brown and Patti Page. He played cornet in the army, however, and worked as a trumpeter with the band of pianist Sammy Price when he got out in the late 30s. During the same period, he also played tenor saxophone in the Don Bagley group.
Acea moved to New York City in the early '40s, performing and recording on piano with tenor sax great Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis in 1947 and 1948. He finished out the decade with Gillespie, and in the early '50s began backing up Illinois Jacquet. Acea also actively freelanced on records, in 1951 with the talented James Moody and with another tenor great, Al Sears, the following year. From 1954 through 1957 he played with Joe Newman, contributing the tune "Blues for Slim" to the album Joe Newman and His Band. Acea's composing skills also took him into the world of doo wop and rhythm and blues, genres that melded regularly with jazz in terms of the musicians involved, if not the listeners that were attracted. He wrote music for the Cadillacs, who later became the Coasters, as well as the big bands of both Frankie Laine and Ray Charles. Jacquet recorded the Acea tune "Little Jeff"; Acea paid back the tribute by giving one of his children "Jacquet" as a middle name.