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Mario Pavone 1940–2021

As a bassist, composer, and bandleader, he brought emotion into the avant-garde

Mario Pavone
Mario Pavone (photo: Ken Franckling)

Mario Pavone, a bassist, composer, and bandleader who came to music late but spent half a century exploring the cutting edge of jazz, died May 15 at his home in Madeira Beach, Florida. He was 80.

His death was reported in numerous outlets and confirmed in a family announcement. Pavone had been fighting cancer for 17 years; a native of Connecticut, he spent his twilight in Florida.

Growing up in the industrial city of Waterbury (“The Brass City”), Pavone seemed set in his youth to join its ranks, earning a degree in engineering from the University of Connecticut. However, attending John Coltrane’s funeral when he was 26 proved to be a life-altering experience—and one that earned jazz his lifelong devotion. Within months, he had joined pianist Paul Bley’s band and was touring the United States and Europe.

He was an active and prolific member of the 1970s loft scene; worked regularly with trumpeter Bill Dixon in the 1980s (while also helping to establish a busy creative jazz community in Connecticut); partnered through the ’90s with alto saxophonist Thomas Chapin, probably his best-known association; and maintained a healthy career under his own leadership, recording nearly three dozen albums over a 50-year period.

Where the avant-garde is often dismissed as cold and cerebral, Pavone pointedly charged his own work with emotion. “It’s virtually the raison d’être for me,” he told the Hartford Courant in a 2014 interview. “To me, the work starts with a feeling. So it’s all feeling for me.”

Mario Anthony Pavone Jr. was born November 11, 1940 in Waterbury, Connecticut, to Mario Pavone Sr., a gold electroplater, and Victoria Apicello Pavone, a housewife. Pavone’s uncle owned an electroplating business, for which virtually his entire family worked, including his father. Pavone Senior, however, worked his way up to becoming a master gold-plater, eventually working with the United States space program.

The younger Mario Pavone at first seemed on a trajectory to become a pharmacist, working at a pharmacy as a teenager at Leavenworth High School and enrolling at UConn to study pharmacy. However, he changed majors before graduation, earning his bachelor’s in industrial science instead. Even then, however, he entered a third profession, becoming a social worker in Danbury.

Once again, this was not to be Pavone’s destiny. He had been a lover of R&B in high school, and transferred his fandom to jazz after seeing John Coltrane at his legendary Village Vanguard stand in November 1961. A few years later, Pavone was singing along to a Wes Montgomery solo on a jukebox when he was heard by his neighbor in Waterbury—guitarist Joe Diorio—who recognized Pavone’s acute ear and told him to pick up an instrument.

Though he had already begun moonlighting in jazz, the intensity of the proceedings at Coltrane’s 1967 funeral moved him so deeply that he immediately decided to leave his day job. “I had left my brief case on the social service [office desk],” he told the Courant. “I never went back.”

A few months later, Pavone was in Bley’s trio, touring North America and Europe, and working regularly with vibraphonist and pianist Bobby Naughton. He also formed a bond with Bill Dixon, who would become a frequent collaborator for decades.

Work with Dixon and Archie Shepp made Pavone a frequent presence in Lower Manhattan’s “loft jazz” scene of the 1970s. In that same decade, he came under the influence of members of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), many of whose members had moved to New York. Among these was trumpeter Leo Smith, then a student of ethnomusicology at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University. With Smith, Naughton, and drummer Gerry Hemingway, Pavone co-founded an AACM-inspired, artist-run collective called the Creative Musicians Improvising Forum. It quickly became the nucleus of a substantial community of creative artists based in Connecticut, including Ray Anderson, Pheeroan akLaff, Anthony Davis, and Mark Helias.

Pavone also formed his own record label, Alacra, which issued his debut album, Digit, in 1979.

Throughout the 1980s, Pavone’s most frequent collaborations were with Dixon—with whom he recorded three albums on the Italian label Soul Note—and trombonist Peter McEachern, a regular member of Pavone’s own ensembles. During that decade, Pavone also had his first projects with Thomas Chapin, whose trio he ultimately joined in 1989.

Pavone continued playing with Chapin’s highly acclaimed trio until the saxophonist’s death in 1998. He also worked regularly throughout the ’90s with Anthony Braxton, with whom he co-led a quintet. In the 2000s, Pavone became creative partners with guitarist Michael Musillami, also engaging in projects that variously featured trumpeter Steven Bernstein; saxophonist Tony Malaby; pianist Peter Madsen; and drummers Gerald Cleaver, Michael Sarin, and Matt Wilson. In the 2010s he unveiled a trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.

With the recognition that his time was drawing near, Pavone set out to complete his last two recordings: Blue Vertical with Mitchell and Sorey (plus guest trumpeter Dave Ballou), and Isabella, with Sarin, alto saxophonist Mike DiRubbo, and Pavone’s son Michael. Both albums are forthcoming.

In addition to Michael, Pavone is survived by his wife of almost 60 years, Mary Pugliese; a grandson; and four great-grandchildren. The family will hold a private funeral, with a public celebration of Pavone’s life to be celebrated at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Suncoast Hospice in Clearwater, Florida; the Litchfield Jazz Camp Mario Pavone Scholarship; or Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut.

Read JazzTimes‘ review of Philosophy by Mario Pavone’s Dialect Trio.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.