The term renaissance man comes to mind when Donny Piela talks about his life experiences.
His 20 years in the military, work with and creation of several bands in the area, charity work and diverse work experience point to a life full of opportunity. He said he gets bored easily and loves to try new things.
It was after serving in the U.S. Navy for nearly 20 years, Donny Piela, Marthasville, 66, turned to the arts. He retired from the Navy after a decorated career in 1991 and immediately set out to try his hand at music and art. He said he thought about playing all the time during his service.
He then learned how to paint, create floral arrangements and to play the saxophone. His love of music eventually led to establishing the WashMo Blues Society, playing in East Central College’s Jazz and Jazz Combo Bands and a current spot with the St. Louis Big Band.
Piela said during his entire 20 years in the Navy, he always had music on his mind. He said he would often tell his fellow servicemen that he was going to learn how to play the saxophone when he retired.
In 1991, he did just that. Piela said he chose to spend more time with his family and retired from his position in the Navy. Shortly after, he and his first wife divorced, an even that made him want to accomplish his artistic goals even more.
Currently, Piela is learning how to play the alto saxophone, which he hopes to master. He said he currently plays six to eight hours a day in the hopes of mastering the instrument.
“Jazz really is my love. I just bought an alto. I’m going to do what it takes to take my music to the next level and that involves practicing six to eight hours a day,” Piela said. “But I’m going to get there.”
“It takes a lot of discipline,” Piela said. “But that’s what it takes. You have to spend the time playing. To master an instrument you’re talking 10,000 hours and I don’t have that time left in my life. I’m 66 years old.”
But his life before music was one of decoration and duty. Piela’s time in the Navy saw him serve in many roles. He recalls his time in Panama as the most exciting of his career.
During the invasion of Panama, Piela transferred to the XVIII Airborne Corps, where he was the first naval officer in history to serve as an action officer on a Corps level staff. During that time, he said he coordinated combat and logistics for more than 8,000 troops.
Piela said he’s trying to live everyday to the fullest. He said after his wife of 15 years Marjorie passed away in 2012, he realized he had to make the most of each day. In recent years he’s focused on charity work and even runs a charity.
“I’ve had a really blessed life so I have a need to give back,” Piela said. “There were so many times that I was broken down to nothing and I put my life in Gods’ hands.”
Piela is currently engaged to Sandy Bailey and plays with the St. Louis Big Band often.