Joe Lovano

Following his recent gig with his new group the Village Rhythms Band at Ronnie Scott’s, as well as the release of his Sound Prints album on Blue Note, Joe Lovano reflects on his career as a jazz musician and the importance of unity through music

On 23 July 1966, at around 2.30am on Euclid Avenue, which sits just at the edge of Cleveland’s Little Italy neighbourhood, Warren LaRiche, a 28-year-old Italian American, fired two shotgun rounds at Benoris Toney, a 29-year-old African American.

Toney, who was married and had five sons, died in hospital the next day. LaRiche, who was engaged to be remarried and had one adopted son, was ultimately acquitted of murder charges on the grounds of self-defence.

Music is all about relationships and when you play together, you’re feeding off the same inspirations

The incident happened five days into the weeklong race riots in the African American neighbourhood of Hough, Cleveland. What was particularly significant about Toney’s shooting was that it occurred some 40 blocks outside of Hough, in an area that experienced no other incidents of violence at that time.

“By Friday, everybody was carrying a gun. It was an armed camp,” said LaRiche in an interview before his trial. “Everybody had heard the coloured people were going to come up the hill and burn us out ... the people stood on the streets and were afraid.”

While the uprisings highlighted the heightened racial anxieties within a separated urban community – mirrored across the rest of the US – the musical activities of local Sicilian American tenor saxophonist Tony ‘Big T’ Lovano embodied a more unified approach.

With a large majority of Cleveland’s jazz clubs having been burnt down, Tony Lovano fought hard after the riots to work with his racially mixed groups in supper clubs in the city’s suburbs.

“My dad was a very popular musician in Cleveland,” recalls Joe Lovano, who was in his early teens during the riots. “He turned a lot of people around at that time by presenting those groups and playing with musicians that he grew up with.”

From a young age, Lovano was not only taught how to play jazz by his father, he was also shown the importance of remaining open to different cultures and people.

“Jazz is all about relationships and I was really fortunate as a teenager to grow up within that. All of the cats that played with him really showed me the way and helped me develop as a musician.”

Joe Lovano experienced jazz and Italian music in harmony as a child and second generation Italian American.

His father’s family had migrated from Alcara Li Fusi and his mother Josephine Verzi’s came from Cesarò – both of which are towns in the Sicilian province of Messina.

My father made me aware to a lot of things when I started playing

“I remember as a little kid, it felt like a party every night in the house,” says Lovano, now 62. “My grandmother, who was a real big Italian lady, would sing opera, my dad’s uncle Jim would play the mandolin and my dad would play his saxophone. There was all kinds of music going on and I just felt it all the same.”

Around the age of 11, Lovano got his first tenor saxophone and started learning jazz from his father, who was a bebop player and hip to the developing free jazz movement at that time.

“My father made me aware to a lot of things when I started playing,” he says. “He showed me how to teach myself by ear, how to memorise scales, to study drummers, piano, bass and trumpet players, and singers. I was also learning how to improvise right from the beginning.”

At 15, while studying at Euclid High School, Lovano was brought on board Cleveland’s musician union, Local 4, by his father and began performing locally.

“On Friday or Saturday nights, when the high school bands had to march at the football game, I was playing gigs.

“I remember, during marching band period, the director Mr Harper used to come in the concert room, where I was practicing by myself. He would hear me playing things he never heard before and realised that I was starting to get myself together in another kind of way.”

After graduating from high school in 1971, Lovano enrolled at Berklee College of Music, Boston. Having played gigs throughout his time at Euclid, he was able to pay for all his tuition.

“To not have to borrow money from my family or take out a student loan was a big deal. I felt right away that I was on my way to being a proper musician.”

At Berklee, Lovano was studying under the likes of Gary Burton, a vibraphonist who had developed the ‘four-mallet’ technique, and saxophonists Joe Viola and John LaPorta.

When you went to New York in the 1970s, you went to be heard

He also started playing with trumpeter Herb Pomeroy’s big band and Detroit organist Dr Lonnie Smith’s group, making his first recording on Smith’s Afrodesia in 1974.

After graduating from Berklee, Lovano moved back to Cleveland to play at the regarded Smiling Dog jazz club. When organist Jack McDuff came through town, he asked Lovano to join him on a tour through the Chitlin’ Circuit – a string of clubs around the eastern, southern and upper midwest areas of the US that was originally deemed as ‘safe’ for African American performers.

After two years back in his hometown, Lovano moved to New York in 1976, staying with friends in the Chelsea area, Midtown and the Upper West Side.

Village Rhythm
“When you went to New York in the 1970s, you went to be heard. Entering the scene was kind of easy for me because I had been coming down for those two years I was in Cleveland. A lot of friends from Boston had moved there so there was a community of us that were together.”

After a few months of living in New York, he started playing with Chet Baker. He then became involved with New York’s loft jazz scene, frequenting drummer Rashied Ali’s loft Ali’s Alley.

It was an amazing moment as well as a spiritual awakening

“When I met Rashied, I asked him if I could sit in. He looked at me and said no. No one had ever said no to me before! I told him, Rashied man I’ve always wanted to play with you. He looked at me again and said, oh yeah ... OK then.”

In the same year in 1976, Lovano joined Woody Herman’s band. A year after, on an international tour with Herman’s group, he played his first gig at Ronnie Scott’s in London. “That was really the springboard into my international touring life,” he recalls.

In 1981, on tour with trumpeter and fellow Clevelander Kenny Davis, Lovano travelled to Lagos, Nigeria, and visited Fela Kuti’s Shrine.
“During the middle of his band’s amazing set, Fela saw us and was curious who we were,” recalls Lovano. “He sent someone around to say hello and wanted to meet us, so he went off the stage, while the band was playing, and we hung out with him for like 10-15.

“We told him we were from Cleveland and we were in town to play at Tafawa Balewa Square, there's a festival there and folks brought us to the shrine ... It was an amazing moment as well as a spiritual awakening.”

Universal Language
Throughout the 1980s, Joe Lovano played in groups with the likes of drummers Paul Motian and Elvin Jones, guitarist John Scofield, bassist Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. “Playing with them really led me to develop as a leader,” he recalls.

Right from the very beginning, I’ve always felt the embrace of musicians

In 1985, after at least a decade of performing for other musicians’ groups, Lovano released his debut album, Tones, Shapes & Colours on the Italian-based Soul Note/Black Saint label.

The release of his debut had signalled the beginning of a fruitful period for Lovano as a leader, one that he still perpetuates today.

In the early 1990s, he began presenting his quartets at a regular slot at the Village Vanguard, New York. Throughout the rest of the 1990s, 2000s through to today, Lovano formed a mass of his own groups, such as Saxophone Summit, Us Five, Sound Prints (with trumpeter Dave Douglas) and his recent Village Rhythms band, which was inspired by his 1981 meeting with Fela Kuti – and presented this month at Ronnie Scott’s.

“The thing was, right from the very beginning, from being a teenager playing with players from my dad’s generation and his world, I’ve always felt the embrace of musicians, whether they be African American or whatever ...

“The older you get, you realise that to embrace all things is what it’s all about, to develop as a person.”