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John Laporta: Themes and Variations

John Laporta

He’s recorded just nine albums as a leader, and only three since 1961, instead spending much of his life developing jazz-education curricula and teaching at Berklee College of Music. He’s well-known in education circles and among the “modern jazz cognoscenti,” but virtually unknown elsewhere. But with the release of his autobiography, Playing It by Ear (Cadence Books, 2001), the compilation CD Theme and Variations (Fantasy, 2002) and I Remember Woody (self-released, 2003), the jazz world at large has the opportunity to know more about the wonderful saxophonist, clarinetist, educator and composer John LaPorta.

Born in 1920, LaPorta was brought up in Philadelphia. By nine he was studying clarinet, eventually with Wilhelm Dietrich, the first chair with the Philadelphia Orchestra. But the lessons stopped when LaPorta’s father suffered an incapacitating stroke. Dietrich offered to continue the lessons free of charge, but LaPorta was too disheartened to immediately go on with formal studies.

LaPorta picked up music again seriously at the age of 12, when he joined a Polish anniversary string band-even though he didn’t play a stringed instrument-and he learned to transpose from string music to clarinet. The bandstand was fine for learning, but LaPorta searched out a more formal education setting, eventually joining with Joseph Gigliotti at Settlement Music School. “I was studying with a euphonium player, and he didn’t know anything about clarinet, and Gigliotti helped me straighten a lot of things out. I was breathing from my chest and not using my diaphragm. Instead of using my tongue to attack the notes, I was using my throat, which also produced a noise in the process.”

Frustrated by his initial inability to overcome playing habits that he calls “disastrous,” LaPorta says he was once walking home with his clarinet and, “I almost threw the damn thing in the Delaware river! It was a very low point in my life. It took several years to correct those bad habits.”

Buoyed by the guidance he was given by Gigliotti, LaPorta began playing with Leopold Stokowski’s All American Youth Orchestra in 1936. “Discipline in the symphony orchestra was very tough,” LaPorta says. “Leopold Stokowski demanded total readiness and intensity. It was a great training-not for using your imagination but for getting an orchestra in shape.”

As a teenager, LaPorta decided to take a shot at becoming a full-time professional musician. He switched to Mastbaum High, which was noted for its music department. While there he made a valuable friend in clarinetist Buddy DeFranco. “At that point he was playing pretty much like Benny Goodman-most of the clarinet players were. I didn’t. I had a lot of respect for Benny, but I didn’t want to be playing like that. I was interested in Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Duke’s band.”

LaPorta became increasingly interested in playing jazz for a living, and by 1942 he had even played in a couple of jam sessions with Dizzy Gillespie in Philadelphia. LaPorta says he’s pretty sure that a fellow Philly musician, trumpeter Joe Facio, influenced Gillespie’s bop style. “Facio was a wonderful trumpet player who played in Dave’s Bar, which was a block away from the tenderloin district-that’s where the vaudeville theater was. He played with just three pieces-piano, drums and trumpet. He was a fairly modern player. Bebop hadn’t occurred yet, and the jam session I was in with Dizzy, though he was playing quite well, he was playing like Roy Eldridge. I’m sure Dizzy knew Facio and sat in with him, and I’m sure that spurred him on to new things. There are always people that influence any great musician that you hear. J.S. Bach might be the voice of his generation now, but there were plenty of other musicians from that time that we’ve just forgotten about that influenced him.”

Up to 1942 LaPorta had played principally with small jazz groups. That spring he joined the Buddy Williams Orchestra, which started him on a 10-year period of big-band employment that included playing with Bob Chester, Ray McKinley, Richard Himber and, starting in 1944, the most popular big band in the country, Woody Herman’s First Herd. “One of the things Herman’s band had was this great ensemble sound,” LaPorta says. “And we were one of the rare white bands that were creating head arrangements, which was common among the black bands. ‘Apple Honey,’ ‘Northwest Passage’-they weren’t written by any one person; they were created when Woody was off the bandstand.” Herman’s group would generate those tricky and now-classic heads spontaneously while playing for their dinner-hour performances. “After a while, tunes like that were no longer appropriate for the dinner hour and had to be played later in the evening,” LaPorta laughs.

By his time with Herman, LaPorta had developed a healthy interest in modern classical composition, and he studied with Ernst Toch and Alexei Haieff. Igor Stravinsky was writing a piece for the First Herd, “Ebony Concerto,” during that time, and LaPorta recalls that the band was quite familiar with the composer’s “Firebird Suite” and “The Rite of Spring.”

While he enjoyed his time with Herman, LaPorta was often bothered by his lack of solo space because, “I was playing the same instrument as Woody. I often wanted to leave the band, but I wouldn’t leave because it was the best band around. I enjoyed it, but I was frustrated at the same time. I just had come from a band where I played lead alto. But what it led to is that I got more interested in writing; that became my outlet.” Among many others, LaPorta contributed the progressive chart “Non-Alcoholic” to the group’s legacy. (Herman’s radio show was sponsored by Wildroot Non-Alcoholic Cream Oil.)

About two months before Herman’s First Herd broke up, in 1946, LaPorta met pianist Lennie Tristano, perhaps jazz’s leading avant-gardist at the time. “When I first met Lennie, he had brought in a piece of music for Woody’s band to play. It was not a great rehearsal band as some of the guys weren’t great readers. But during a rehearsal of Lennie’s piece he asked, ‘Who’s the third alto player? I’d like to meet him’-because he knew I was reading his music. We met socially for several months, then he started teaching me.”

They also recorded together, but LaPorta didn’t find Tristano the easiest guy in the world to get along with.

“Well, because I was older, he used me as a whipping boy to keep the other ones in line, and I wasn’t too keen on that. He would tell me so many negative criticisms about my playing that I found it demoralizing. I was 27 then, and on the road for eight years, and I had quite a bit of experience as a player-and he accepted none of my suggestions. He would say, ‘Lennie wouldn’t do that,’ like he was talking about somebody else. Warne Marsh left for the same reason. Lennie treated him terribly. It was much like a cult. After going through that sort of psychological hell, I reached a point where I said nobody was going to make me go through something like that again.”

LaPorta and Tristano parted ways by 1948, but the former’s appetite for experimentation was undiminished. He continued writing and experimenting with new forms and harmonies as well as playing with the Metronome All-Stars and leading his own groups. In 1953 LaPorta, tenor saxophonist Teo Macero, trumpeter Thad Jones, vibist Teddy Charles, bassist Charles Mingus and other forward-looking musicians formed the Jazz Composers Workshop. “I was the musical director of the group, and it was a painful position to be in,” LaPorta laughs. “These guys were free souls, and I worried about everyone else’s music and didn’t get to spend enough time on my own.”

But playing with Mingus was a turning point for LaPorta.

“The first time I played with him I felt like someone had taken the handcuffs off me. We had a mutual respect. In some sessions I
had played with white guys, they told me I was playing wrong notes; Mingus didn’t. I never had a problem playing with Mingus; I felt like I was free at last.”

Still, LaPorta says that during rehearsals Mingus never played the compositions completely through so the new members of the group had no way of knowing how to perform the work. The matter came to a head on July 17, 1955. “The sheet music was blowing around and off the stand. Some musicians lost their places and didn’t know what to do, so Mingus had a temper tantrum. It was then that I decided not to subject myself to this ever again.

“Mingus and I were scheduled to play a duo, something we had done quite often. These duos were always made up on the spur of the moment. Mingus would start and I would follow. This time, because of what occurred, I said, ‘Screw it,’ and went in the complete opposite direction.” This led to a free-jazz battle between Mingus and LaPorta. “It was the best thing we ever did,” LaPorta laughs. “Voice of America taped it, and I finally tracked it down at the Library of Congress, and they sent me a copy. I wanted to hear that in the worst way because it was such a special thing.”

The Jazz Composers Workshop’s two 1954 10-inch LPs for Period are masterpieces. Modern classical writing influences the compositions and arrangements, but the performances also contain long, fresh, sophisticated jazz solos. (They were released under Mingus’ name and originally called Jazzical Moods, but they are now compiled on the 1999 Bethlehem CD The Jazz Experiments of Charlie Mingus.) The mixture of classical writing and jazz improvising that works so well on the Period 10-inchers can also be heard on the first 14 tracks of LaPorta’s CD Theme and Variations. Those tunes comprise the titular suite and were cut between December 1957 and January 1958, but they have not been released prior to now. The remaining 11 tracks, recorded on June 4 and 5, 1956, came out as the Conceptions LP, but that wasn’t in print for too long when it first came out.

LaPorta describes the “Theme and Variations” suite in the CD’s liner notes “as a major piece for Octet…written for trumpet, trombone, alto, tenor and baritone saxes as well as piano, string bass and drums. There were 12 variations in all. I wrote variations featuring each of the performers except the drum. Other variations consist of a jazz canon, a jazz fugue, one featuring a battle of tenors, and a couple of ensemble variations”

The suite ranks among LaPorta’s most important works. It’s a solidly constructed, freshly written, tightly voiced effort. Though the tempos on it vary, the overall mood of most of the recording is somber and reverent. Some of the soloists on it, especially pianist Wally Cirillo and trombonist Sonny Russo, never received the acclaim they deserved, but they were original, sensitive, technically solid performers. LaPorta demonstrates his considerable skills on two instruments: He was an excellent bop clarinetist, but even more impressive is his unique alto saxophone work. Though his alto playing could be delicate, it was always technically assured and full of odd and sometimes wide intervals.

In the later ’50s LaPorta was involved in some noteworthy projects, including the featured role on a later recording by Herman of “Ebony Concerto,” and he was also the reed coach of the 1959 Newport Youth Band. In fact, as the ’50s closed, LaPorta found himself more and more often in stage-band and clinic positions, which led to a lifetime role as an original and innovative jazz educator. He settled down in Boston in 1962, and joined the faculty of Berklee College of Music, where his duties as an educator eclipsed his playing and composing activities. He wrote numerous pedagogy texts and worked at Berklee as a full-time staffer until 1985. LaPorta continued lecturing at the college and organizing Berklee’s summer schools through 2000 before retiring to Sarasota, Fla.

LaPorta was a conscientious and perceptive teacher who undoubtedly helped many students, but his clarinet and alto sax playing and composing should not be forgotten. LaPorta’s experiments with new forms during the 1950s, at a time when conservative cool jazz ruled the roost, made him one of the keepers of the modernist flame at that time. His recorded efforts are not only audacious but also high quality; they still make challenging listening today.


“My clarinet is a Selmer Series 9*, which I’ve had since 1963. My clarinet mouthpiece is a Selmer E facing. The reed I currently use is a Légère #2. Since 1967 I’ve been playing a Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone with a RIA #5 tenor mouthpiece and Vandoren Java #2 reeds. I have used 2 1/2 strength Vandoren reeds for most of my musical career. However, due to the fact that lung capacity diminishes as we age, I have found it necessary to use a softer reed to compensate.”

Originally Published