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Playing It by Ear by John LaPorta

Though best known for his activities as a pioneering jazz educator at Berklee, John LaPorta was for years before that an important figure in jazz’s avant-garde. In addition to cutting albums of his own, LaPorta appeared as a sideman for and in co-op groups with Lennie Tristano, the Sandole Brothers, the Metronome All Stars, Kenny Clarke, Thad Jones and Charles Mingus. He is a fine and original saxophonist and one of the few gifted and unique jazz clarinetists to emerge in the late 1940s and ’50s. And he’s a visionary composer as well, whose early chart “Non-Alcoholic” was cut by Woody Herman’s great First Herd. LaPorta’s seen and been involved in a lot of jazz history, as this information-packed autobiography demonstrates.

LaPorta’s modern, classically influenced writing and playing led me to believe that he’d had a fine musical education as a young guy. In fact, this wasn’t the case. LaPorta, born in Philadelphia in 1920, was already a professional musician in his teens and learned a lot of what he knows about music from on-the-job experience as well as independent study, although he later received a master’s from the Manhattan School of Music.

He was with Bob Chester’s fairly popular “triple A” band before going to the majors with Herman in 1944. He didn’t have much of an opportunity to solo there, as he and Herman played the same instruments. However, they got along well together. According to LaPorta, “Woody had an easygoing personal manner ideally suited for the creative nature of his band. He provided the climate for head arrangements to flower. Woody was one of very few bandleaders who allowed his musicians the freedom to provide input into creating some of the music.”

LaPorta’s association with Tristano as both a student and sideman proved beneficial to him. Tristano became a darling of Metronome editor Barry Ulanov, and anyone that worked with Tristano was fine with him. Both Ulanov and his successor at Metronome, Bill Coss, praised and supported LaPorta over the next several years.

LaPorta’s clarinet work with Tristano and the all-star bands in which both played is quite daring, although it would become more assured later. After some months, however, LaPorta grew disgusted with Tristano’s dictatorial style and broke with him. LaPorta writes that Tristano would refer to himself in the third person, showing how exasperating he could be. In responding to LaPorta’s suggestion that he transcribe some of Lester Young’s playing, Tristano replied, “Lennie doesn’t know about that. Lennie is afraid you will get to sound like Lester.” But he quotes Tristano as saying, six months later, “John, Lennie thinks you ought to pick up on Lester Young.”

LaPorta made his major breakthroughs in the 1950s, partly as a result of working with Coss. “In the fall of 1953 Bill Coss…approached me with an idea! What if it were possible to get a group of composer-performers together and organize concerts of original music written by them and others.” LaPorta and other artists-Teo Macero, Teddy Charles, Mingus-actually did give a Carnegie Hall concert featuring 21 compositions. Following this, the members of the workshop, including Mingus, Macero and LaPorta, cut some great experimental LPs for Savoy and Period.

In 1957 LaPorta played alto sax during a concert at Brandeis University, recorded by Columbia, containing works by George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Mingus, Gunther Schuller, Milton Babbitt and Harold Shapiro. These were among the first and best recordings of the jazz/classical fusion music called “third stream,” which forecast somewhat similar syntheses during the 1990s by John Zorn, Dave Douglas and others. In addition to these, LaPorta cut his own provocative and excellent small-group albums for Debut, Fantasy and Everest from 1953 to 1959. On them his biting, harmonically advanced alto work can be heard to advantage. He also recorded a Brahms sonata for piano and clarinet for Fantasy and was the featured clarinetist on Woody Herman’s Everest version of Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto.”

Since the 1940s LaPorta had been giving private clarinet and sax lessons. He expanded his efforts during the 1950s, teaching at Farmingdale (Long Island) High School and helping to direct the 1958 International Youth Band at the Newport Jazz Festival. His efforts as an improviser/composer and teacher/director made him better known to the jazz public in the late 1950s than at any time before or since.

From 1962 until he retired, LaPorta taught at Berklee. He chooses to devote very little of his autobiography to this period in his life, and though I’m rather surprised by this, I’m also pleased that he would focus mostly on the years during which he was most active as a performer and writer. His activities and those of his avant-garde jazz colleagues in the 1940s and 1950s succeeded in enriching the vocabulary and recorded legacy of the music.

Throughout his book LaPorta makes balanced and insightful comments about the experimental work he performed and the artists who created it. LaPorta’s commentary about his life as a big-band artist contains material that has social as well as musical value, some colored by humorous anecdotes. Throughout, LaPorta’s humanity and perceptiveness is in evidence.

Originally Published