Once a member of San Francisco's enormous Italian community, composer Otto Cesana caused a good deal of controversy during his heyday, particularly among the crowd that likes to put labels on musical bottles. No less an expert than Leonard Feather thought Cesana was worthy of an entry in the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz, published several years after Cesana himself decided to travel to Italy. Yet Feather admits the man's work is "better judged by classical standards and involves no jazz improvisation." While defining jazz has always been a bit tricky, the presence of improvised sections is indeed an important if not requisite characteristic. Cesana most likely got the nod from Feather because his most famous composition is entitled "Symphony in Jazz."
Other classical composers heavily influenced by jazz -- Darius Milhaud or Karlheinz Stockhausen, for example -- do not show up in Feather's reference. But other blockades await as Cesana is herded over to the classical ranch. Noted Brazilian music critic José Domingos Raffaelli feels the composer should be associated with lighter forms of music, writing "...in my opinion easy listening music is the kind of music played by the string orchestras of Mantovani, Otto Cesana, David Rose, Peter Yorke, and others." Even without a clear consensus of how he should be categorized, Cesana also caused a form of retrospective controversy with the titles of his other compositions, particularly a piano roll entitled "Negro Heaven." Cesana began his study of the piano in 1909. One fact beyond dispute is that the man liked to learn; he had many teachers and became adept at organ, orchestration, and harmony. He turned out compositions and arrangements for radio stations and the Hollywood film studios and began premiering his original works in the early '40s at prestigious venues such as New York City's Town Hall. The direction taken by his subsequent recording career tends to underscore the comments of Raffaelli. For example, Cesana was contracted by Columbia alongside company such as Ray Conniff. Clearly it was the easy listening, lounge, and bachelor pad/hi-fi crowd that was being aimed at, not serious modern classical listeners.