Renowned saxophonist / clarinetist, composer and longtime jazz educator John LaPorta died from complications of a stroke on May 12, 2004 in Sarasota, Fla., at age 84. LaPorta, who was born in Philadelphia in 1920, suffered a stroke in January, but was released from the hospital to his Sarasota home in early April.
LaPorta, who is known for his music as well as his role as an avid jazz educator, began playing the clarinet when he was nine years old, first studying with Wilhelm Dietrich, the first chair clarinet with the Philadelphia Orchestra. LaPorta’s skills were refined when he studied with Joseph Gigliotti at the Settlement Music School, and further when he joined Leopold Stowkowski’s All American Youth Orchestra in 1936. During high school LaPorta became increasingly interested in jazz, admiring musicians like Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington. In 1942, LaPorta was lucky enough to be part of several jam sessions with Dizzy Gillespie.
Later in 1942, LaPorta joined the Buddy Williams Orchestra and in 1944 he joined the most popular big band in the country, Woody Herman’s First Herd. Two months before First Herd’s breakup in 1946, LaPorta met avant-garde jazz pianist Lennie Tristano. Tristano and LaPorta recorded together, but parted ways in 1948.
In 1953 LaPorta, tenor saxophonist Teo Macero, trumpeter Thad Jones, vibist Teddy Charles and bassist Charles Mingus, among others, formed the Jazz Composers Workshop, of which LaPorta served as musical director. LaPorta’s work with the Jazz Composers Workshop can be found on LaPorta’s 1956 release Conceptions and his 2002 compilation Theme and Variations, as well as Mingus’ Jazzical Moods, which was re-released as The Jazz Experiments of Charlie Mingus in 1999.
In 1962, LaPorta shifted his interest from playing music to teaching music when he joined the faculty at Berklee College of Music in Boston where he worked until 1985. In the subsequent years, LaPorta continued lecturing at colleges around the country, notably the Manhattan School of Music, and organizing Berklee’s summer programs until 2000, when he retired to Sarasota.
LaPorta wrote several books, including his autobiography, Playing It by Ear, in 2001, as well as numerous educational texts. He also wrote over 200 musical compositions. Following the release of his autobiography, LaPorta made his final recording, I Remember Woody, which he self-released in 2003. In March 2004, LaPorta was honored with the annual “Satchmo” award at the Sarasota Jazz Festival.
LaPorta is survived by his wife, Ginny, three daughters, one son and several grandchildren.