Another venue for my musical future was celebrating a Patron Saint. Several towns within Sicily or Naples were blessed with a miraculous individual who was responsible for the divine healings of body, spirit, or unique occasions. The Italian immigrants who came to America created Italian ghettos and felt comfortable with celebrating the saint who had been in their past towns. There were food stands with gourmet foods, decorative and festive rows of lights, in exact replications which continued for several blocks. Steel cables were placed across from building to building. Girls dressed as angels were hooked on, flowing back and forth in mid air. An orchestra of woodwinds, brass, and percussion, with an excellent conductor performed on a large, elevated stage. The highest level of opera singers performed famous arias, and also sang in duos and trios, doing scenes from operas. Traditional folk songs were sung in a variety of dialects. Two instrumental soloists were chosen to perform, and they dazzled the audiences. My father knew a few musicians who played and they allowed me to sit on stage for the duration of the night. This was a profound learning experience for me.
In my first and only semester of high school, I was put in a marching band (a symphony orchestra) and played bassoon.
At that time, 1941 in Brooklyn, there were many dance bands and dance band contests. My band was different. My personality, always seeking to be unique, formed an all reed and rhythm section. The band was a grand success. WNYC city radio station gave us the opportunity to play on the air for 4 consecutive weeks. We received boxes full of fan mail. It might have been the only reed band at the time. I know later on there was a professional reed band. It might have been Glen Grey.
1942 - 1943 "Early Gigs"
My first gig at 15 was in a neighborhood bar. Someone who was in my band called me. I think it was Carl Stabile, a tenor saxophonist. He was a tall skinny guy who wore peg pants. I don't remember whether I played alto and clarinet or just clarinet. My father dropped me off. As I walked in the club, I had to walk by a long bar to the back where there was a bandstand with chairs and tables and a small dance floor. It all seemed like a dream. I felt my head was empty. I couldn't think at all. I went through the motions of getting on the bandstand to get my instruments ready to play.
But all of a sudden, I remember playing the first song. I could almost see us play right nowCarl Stabile who was to my right and Melvin "Red" Olson was playing piano. He wore a white shirt and the collar was starched and unbuttoned. He played kind of a boogie woogie. Then a plump lady in her 40's " a Red Hot Mamma", started to sing. " One of these days, you're gonna miss me honey." It was great.
I recall Carl had to leave the band at some point and I was to take over. It all went well. We then had an audition at an agent's office. His name was Jack Miller. He had a moustache, and when I played, he would smile. I knew he liked my playing. Shortly after, we did a tour. The band was called "the Quartones". Bob Felini played electric guitar, Pat Monty played bass, Melvin "Red" Olson played piano, and I played alto sax and clarinet. Our first gig was in Schenectady. I have beautiful pictures with the band posing as if playing. I wonder how many songs I knew? We never read music. In one picture taken with the band, you see me playing sax and clarinet at the same time or holding my clarinet way up in the air.
"Red" Olson and I were the exciting players. I didn't know any chords to songs. I just played something with great enthusiasm. I must have played well for I received much applause and was liked by all. Again, I had no idea what I was playing; I just recall excitement. At this point I "somehow" hooked up with other Quartets and played on tour and at home. I say "somehow" since I don't know or understand till this day the circumstances of how I met the musicians I played with from 17 yrs. old to almost 19 yrs. old.
1944 - 1945 "Musical Growth"
At 17 yrs. of age, the various groups I played for brought more specific demands from the bandleaders. Al Bandini took me to Nick's Dixieland Jazz club to hear Pee Wee Russell to help influence me. I was too immature to understand Pee Wee's great gift. I believed he was important, though his tone and manner of playing tuned me off (today I sympathize with those who find my playing odd, interesting, great, lacking swing, and know that I was fortunate enough to get old enough to be heard. One reviewer said in 1990, when my first album "get ready to receive yourself" was released, "he growls a little but that doesn't make it jazz. I'm glad I could go back to my Albert Ayler").
The world of jazz is a musical space with a complex history and haunting appeal--a space to revisit and celebrate. It’s that
amazing moment when you hear a really great song you haven't heard in years and you still know the tune and every word.