The Jazz Romeo of 46th Street

Sam Newsome By

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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 who—after selling most of his belongings—came 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 $6,000—40,0000; and Michiko Rehearsal Studios—popular 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, Italy—a small town between Milan and Venice—decided 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.


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