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Joe Maneri Dies at 82

Barre Phillips, Joe Maneri, Mat Maneri

Multi-reedist, composer and educator Joe Maneri died on Aug. 24 at a hospital in Boston. He was 82 years old. For most of his life, Maneri toiled in obscurity, spending his time as both a student and teacher of creative music. Although he retired from public performance for various stretches throughout his life, a series of recordings for the ECM, Hat Art and Leo labels during the ’90s helped to bring him a certain level of recognition among jazz aficionados and musicians. Author and graphic novelist Harvey Pekar championed Maneri and even insisted that his music be included in American Splendor, the film based on Pekar’s life. (Pekar also profiled the reedman for JazzTimes in 2000.) Maneri is perhaps best known for his passion for microtonal music, the use of 72 notes per octave. In 1995, fellow educator Ran Blake said about his colleague, “Along with Jimmy Giuffre and perhaps tomorrow’s Don Byron, Joe Maneri is one of the 20th century’s greatest clarinetists.”

Maneri was born in New York City in 1927, the son of Sicilian parents. Ironically, this artist, who would devote much of his life to music education, had little formal training and dropped out of school at a young age. He later attributed his problems at school to attention deficit disorder. He told Pekar in JT: “Without knowing what was wrong, I had to leave high school and went on the road playing clarinet and saxophones, sometimes together [à la Rahsaan Roland Kirk] and scat singing. I had difficulties. The difficulties I had in school continued in real life. I had to count my money 15 times to make sure I had it all, and read things over and over until I knew what they meant. It even bothered me in reading music.”

Maneri learned to play the clarinet from neighborhood friends, and by the time he was a teenager was playing in wedding and dance bands all over the Northeast. Maneri was attracted to the unusual tonalities of Eastern European folk music. However, it wasn’t until he started studying with Josef Schmid that Maneri came to grips with the deeper complexity of microtonal music. Immersing himself in the music of classical composers Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Alba, as well as Greek folk music, Maneri spent the next 10 years as an obsessive student and composer. A piano concerto commissioned by the Boston Symphony wasn’t performed ostensibly because of its complexity. In 1965 he performed a David Reek piece dedicated to Ornette Coleman with Gunther Schuller’s 20th Century Innovations Ensemble at Carnegie Hall. Shortly thereafter, an impressed Schuller arranged for a record deal for Maneri with Atlantic Records, but the recording was never released.

Disillusioned with the music business, Maneri took a job teaching at New England Conservatory in 1970 and public appearances became rare. Nonetheless, he mentored several gifted musicians and championed the work of many others. Encouraged in part by his son, violinist Mat Maneri, he began performing and recording again in the mid-’80s. He often performed with his son in a quartet with bassist John Lockwood and drummer Randy Peterson and a trio with guitarist Joe Morris. Maneri told Pekar in 2000 that his attitude toward performing had changed. “I only played seven gigs in 1999, but I’d like to play much more,” Maneri said. “Playing before an audience that’s tuned in to my work is a great privilege and joy. If they’re not [tuned in], it’s a great challenge to try to reach them with love. The things I accomplished I want to be in the hearts of everyone I meet.”

Originally Published