It’s such a deep honor to celebrate this fine man and wonderful musician. He has had such a great impact on me and on so many musicians I know.
I met Joe when I moved to New York in the late 1970s and played one of my first gigs with Chuck Israels and the National Jazz Ensemble. I was 19. Joe was playing baritone. He was really old. He was, like, in his 40s.
Needless to say I was pretty green, and when we were rehearsing Duke’s “Ko-Ko,” I was coming at it with this very bright, modern sound and energy. After all, I was a musical product of the ’70s, exposed to jazz-rock and fusion. Joe yelled at me in his thick Scottish accent: “Ya gotta play it with a dark sound. This is Duke Ellington, not rock ’n’ roll!” Sal Nistico, playing tenor, even chimed in: “Yeah, man, ya gotta play it with respect.” I did try, but I thought, “These guys are old-fashioned. I’m the new shit.”
One night Chuck said to me, “Do you recognize Joe’s genius?” I didn’t know how to answer that question, because I wasn’t capable of answering it. I was still drawn more to fast notes and phrases, things that hit you over the head, and less interested in melodies and spaces.
Within a few months Chuck closed that band down and moved to Washington State to teach. I didn’t see Joe much, except on a few Bobby Rosengarden club dates. But I was growing up. I started to pay attention to the big, warm, fuzzy sound emanating from Joe’s vintage Conn baritone. I was starting to recognize Joe’s genius.
Sitting in the section with him in those early years, and later with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, hearing his spirit and soul and the way he approached music taught me so much over the years. Joe was a natural teacher.
A few years later, probably in the early ’90s, I ran into Joe at the musicians’ union. I had heard he was playing with Wynton Marsalis, someone I had always wanted to play with but figured I never would. I asked Joe how it was playing with Wynton. His reply: “Wynton plays with such humanity.” It was such a beautiful answer, for so many reasons. I had expected him to describe how Wynton runs the band, or give me some dirt about him. But Joe got right to the soul of the matter. That was Joe—no BS, just pure soul.
Over the years I experienced Joe in so many situations, and one thing was consistent: He never, ever represented himself to be anything other than exactly who he was, musically and personally. I am very proud to have been his colleague and friend.Originally Published