The Jazz Romeo of 46th Street
The New York City jazz scene in the 1980s experienced an influx of young musicians from all over the world, looking to get a slice of "The Big Apple." Among them was an adventurous 22-year-old saxophonist and flutist from Italy named Roberto Romeo whoafter selling most of his belongingscame to New York for what he thought was going to be a short visit before making his way down to Rio de Janeiro where he was going to study Brazilian music. Mr. Romeo, by the way, never did make it Brazil.
"I came to New York and I went through all of all my money," said Mr. Romeo from his small but elegant showcase room were he sells vintage saxophones, located in the back of his store on 46th Street. "I couldn't go to Brazil and I couldn't go back to Europe. I was stuck here," said Mr. Romeo, recalling how his dream of moving to Brazil was cut short because he ran out of money.
Mr. Romeo, who celebrated his 50th birthday this year, will commemorate twenty years in October of 2009 as one of the most in demand saxophone repairmen and music retailers in New York. His Who's Who clientele include Branford Marsalis, Sonny Rollins, Woody Allen, Ornette Coleman, Clarence Clemmons (from Bruce Springsteen's Eastside Band), Phillip Glass, and Bill Cosby.
"This shop is like no other," said Frank Kozyra, a 30-year-old saxophonist and repairman who has been working alongside Mr. Romeo for about seven or eight months. "A lot of big name players are always here. People that I've looked up to as a player."
Mr. Romeo has turned what began as a one-room, 400-square-foot-repairshop, into a multi-faceted, two-million-dollar-a-year business, which includes his own brand of Roberto's Winds saxophone reeds and saxophones; a DVD series called "Masterclasses," featuring masterclasses conducted at his store by prominent jazz artists like Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano; the The Mark VI Room, a by-appointment-only showcase room which has over 40 vintage Mark VI Selmer saxophones with prices ranging from $6,00040,0000; and Michiko Rehearsal Studiospopular rehearsal spaces with state-of-the facilities which have been rented by everybody from jazz drummer Elvin Jones to Oscar-award-winning actor Terrence Howard.
But Mr. Romeo's living-the-American-dream-like success didn't come without difficult times. "It was tough. Totally tough," said Mr. Romeo, as he stared reflectively into the air, remembering what life was once like twenty years ago. Mr. Romeo, who began playing the flute at the age of 11 and the saxophone at age 16 in Barona, Italya small town between Milan and Venicedecided to leave his hometown after a promising record deal with a prominent Italian label went sour. "I was disappointed," said Romeo. "After that, I said, 'You know what? I'm out of here!'"
Eventually making New York his home, back in 1981, Mr. Romeo studied jazz at the Sound of Joy Music School in Manhattan. "After a year of living here, I was working as a waiter in the restaurants," said Mr. Romeo. "I wanted a job, any kind of day job." So when the owner of the Sound of Joy Music School expressed to the young Mr. Romeo that he needed an extra set of work-hands to help build some extra rehearsal studios in a space that he was renting on 46th Street, Mr. Romeo eagerly accepted the job. "In seven weeks, I built like five studios and sound-proofed them for him. I did those jobs for a Conn baritone (saxophone)," laughed Mr. Romeo.
It was during this time, however, that he was to meet the man who would forever change his life. "And next door, there was Saul Fromkin, this saxophone repairman," said Mr. Romeo, as he sentimentally recalled the situation. "This guy saw me work, and said 'Wow, you've got good hands. Do you want to work with me?' " At first I told him, 'I don't want to be a repairman. I want to be a saxophonist.' " But with his then wife pregnant with his son, and money from playing gigs being minimal, Mr. Romeo said he soon reconsidered Mr. Fromkin's offer. "I said to myself, 'You know, I've never been to college. This is going to be my college.'"
Starting with a modest $150 a week salary, Mr. Romeo worked for Mr. Fromkin as his assistant for the next five years. However, in 1986, Mr. Fromkin's already fading health took a turn for the worst. He developed respiratory problems, which forced him to take some time off away from the shop. "Suddenly I was put on the frontline," said Mr. Romeo. "I had to do everything. I was sweating. But I got through it. I became confident!" Several months later, Mr. Fromkin returned only to realize that his clients now preferred Mr. Romeo's work to his. He graciously offered to let him remain as the lead repairman and volunteered to work as his assistant. "I was really like, happy," said Mr. Romeo.
It wasn't long before Mr. Romeo became the saxophone repairman of choice amongst New York's saxophone elite, including four of his dear friends Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, and Bob Berg, who are all sadly no longer with us. As a matter of fact, a popular music store in Italy got word of his New York popularity and offered him a 50-50-partnership if he'd come to work at their new store in Milan. At the time, their offer seemed to come at just the right moment. He had just begun to develop the confidence to move from under the wing of Mr. Fromkin and was looking to start his own businessand "out of respect" to his former mentor, he didn't want to set up shop in the same city. Secondly, his home-sick wife was growing tired of New York and anxiously wanted to move back to Italy. So Milan seemed to be the perfect opportunity. But when Mr. Fromkin told him that he was relocating to Floridadue to the sudden increase in his rentthat changed everything.
With encouragement from his loyal clients and friends, he refused the music store's offer and decided to stay in New York. Unfortunately, his wife, who was all set to move, didn't take to favorably to the idea and decided to return to Milan anyway. "She said to me, 'With you or with out you, I'm going to Italy,'" said Mr. Romeo, with a slight laugh of disbelief.
In August of 1989, he converted the third floor studio apartment upstairs from where he worked for Mr. Fromkin's into a repair shop, which became "Roberto's Winds." But it wasn't, however, all smooth sailing.
"The beginning was really tough," said Mr. Romeo. "I was putting the rent on the credit card. There was no work. I didn't have a sign outside. People were looking for me, but they couldn't find me." And to make matters worse, some of his nearby competitors were spreading the word that he had moved back to Italy. After a couple of months of not knowing whether or not his business was going to survive, Mr. Romeo said that he started to see a glimmer of hope. "Business started to awaken in the early fall," said Mr. Romeo. "By December, I was swamped with work. I was working seven days a week, 12 hours a day.
Today, 20 years later, Mr. Romeo is still "swamped with work," but he is no longer a one-man operation. He now has thirteen full- and part-time employees and clientele that spans the globe at his newly renovated, tri-level Roberto's Winds/Michiko Studios storewhich, ironically, just happens to be located directly across the street from where he once worked as a saxophone repairman assistant for a $150.00 a day.
As our forty-minute interview neared the end, I asked Mr. Romeo whether or not he has any aspirations to play again. "Yeah," said Mr. Romeo. "What I'm missing now is that buzz that I kind forgot because of the business part and everything. I would really like to get it againthe high!"