Hailed by the New York Times as “one of the greatest musicians in jazz history,” Grammy-winning saxophone giant Joe Lovano has distinguished himself for some three decades. Lovano was born in Cleveland in 1952 and began playing alto saxophone as a child. A prophetic infant photo of Lovano shows him cradled in his mother’s arms along with a saxophone. His father, tenor saxophonist Tony “Big T” Lovano, schooled Lovano not only in the basics, but also in dynamics and interpretation, and regularly exposed him to live performances of international jazz artists such as Sonny Stitt, James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Ammons and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Lovano attended the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston. His early professional gigs were with organists Lonnie Smith and Brother Jack McDuff, and a three-year tour with Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd from 1976 to 1979. After leaving Herman’s band, Lovano settled in New York City where he eventually joined the Mel Lewis Orchestra for its regular Monday night concert at the Village Vanguard, playing from 1980 to 1992 and recording six albums with the group. Lovano joined the Paul Motian band in 1981 and has since worked and collaborated with John Scofield, Herbie Hancock, Elvin Jones, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Dave Holland, Ed Blackwell, Michel Petrucciani, Lee Konitz, Abbey Lincoln, Tom Harrell, McCoy Tyner, Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall, Bob Brookmeyer and many more.
Lovano’s illustrious relationship with Blue Note Records began in 1991 and includes 14 Grammy nominations with a win in the Best Large Ensemble category for 2000’s “52nd Street Themes.”
In early 2008, Lovano replaced Joshua Redman in the tenor saxophone chair of the touring and studio ensemble, the SFJazz Collective. Also in the Collective were trumpeter Dave Douglas, trombonist Robin Eubanks, and fellow Blue Note Recording Artist vibraphonist Stefon Harris. They joined Miguel Zenon, Renee Rosnes, Matt Penman and Eric Harland in this popular ensemble of some of today’s most exciting jazz players.
Joe Lovano has been a member of Local 802 since the mid-1970s and is also an endorser and supporter of the union’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign. Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently caught up with Lovano to hear what he had to say.
Bob Pawlo: Professional musicians are often inspired early on by their families. Tell us about how your dad influenced your music.
Joe Lovano: My dad Tony (who was called “Big T”) was one of the leading saxophonists around Cleveland in his day, and he came from a musical family. His brothers all played music. Uncle Nick played tenor saxophone, Uncle Joe played tenor and my Uncle Carl – who is still with us today – plays trumpet. I’m also very happy to say my youngest brother Anthony is carrying on the Lovano tradition as well and is very active as a drummer/leader around Cleveland today. So I grew up with a lot of music, but my dad was the main influence. He was my teacher, mentor and guiding light. My dad heard Charlie Parker and Lester Young play live! And as I started playing saxophone in school, I would go to rehearsals with my dad and meet musicians of his generation.
Bob Pawlo: What concepts did you pick up from your dad?
Joe Lovano: I learned about repertoire and playing music for people in public, and I also got to play with some really great professional players who were in my dad’s bands. I learned how to memorize melodies and harmonic sequences. I was lucky that my dad was a great teacher and generous in his way of sharing the music. His record collection became my record collection.
Bob Pawlo: What were your first gigs?
Joe Lovano: I joined AFM Local 4 in Cleveland when I was about 15. I started playing in bands and subbing for my dad on gigs that he would get called for and couldn’t make. These would be standard songs and the rhythm section included accordion, bass and drums. I also played in some Motown bands. I grew up as a teenager in the 60s, so the Beatles and Motown were really new to my generation and I was in a lot of bands like that too.
Bob Pawlo: What sax players caught your attention?
Joe Lovano: Sonny Stitt, John Coltrane Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Griffin, Hank Mobley, Stan Getz. My dad played a jam session with John Coltrane in the early 50s, when Coltrane was playing alto in a blues band.This was around the time Coltrane was playing with Dizzy, before Miles. My dad ended up playing at this jazz session and met Coltrane and followed his whole career. So I grew up with early Coltrane recordings and also recordings in his last period when he was playing deep personal expression, which was really great. My dad had Woody Herman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie records, and hearing all those things really prepared me for later gigs. I was listening to Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn ten years prior to when I joined the Woody Herman Thundering Herd. I was 23 when I got that gig in 1976 and I was already way into the music and the players.
Bob Pawlo: At what point did you realize you were going to be a professional player?
Joe Lovano: As a teenager, I had the passion and the love for the music. It was never really in question. Before I knew it, I was in the musicians’ union and I made enough money to go to Berklee after high school and pay my own tuition and have an apartment in Boston.
Bob Pawlo: How was your experience at Berklee?
Joe Lovano: It was amazing. Going there from high school in 1971, I had a chance to play in some situations that were very challenging. That was a big lesson, to actually be in ensembles with great directors like Gary Burton, John LaPorta and Herb Pomeroy, and having the chance to study saxophone and music with Joe Viola and Andy McGee and flute with Nick Caiazza.
Bob Pawlo: What do you remember learning from them?
Joe Lovano: Joe and Andy taught me to develop my technique and play in all keys. I studied sound and technique with Nick on flute. John taught me to play by ear with a creative, rhythmic approach. Gary Burton was bringing in music that he was playing and recording with Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. Gary’s approach stayed with me all these years, and that’s what I do today – I bring compositions into my classes and workshops that I’m actually playing now or have played over the years.
Bob Pawlo: What were key things you learned from Herb Pomeroy?
Joe Lovano: To sit in a saxophone section in a big band, to look at an arrangement before you play a note and to know what is happening in that arrangement before you even play it. Herb would pass out a chart and we would talk through it and look at it, and study your own part, but also by studying your part you’re learning about everybody else’s part around you. You prepare yourself to play a piece musically the first time.
Bob Pawlo: When and where was your first gig with Woody Herman?
Joe Lovano: I had first played with Joe Romano, a great tenor player who had played with Woody in the 60s with Sal Nistico. We met in the early 70s in Rochester. I sat in with his quartet and we hit it off. In 1976, we were re-acquainted in New York. I was playing with Albert Daily in the Village and Joe came and sat in. I gave him the number where I was staying. Two days later I got the call from Bill Byrne, who played fifth trumpet in Woody’s band and was his road manager. He said that Joe Romano had recommended me. It was Woody’s 40th anniversary year. They had called Joe to make this special tour, but he didn’t want to go back on the road so he gave them my number. I flew to St. Louis and joined the band that August. In November 1976 we played Woody’s 40th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall, which was recorded for RCA.
Bob Pawlo: That’s a great record.
Joe Lovano: I found myself at the front microphone on “Early Autumn” with Stan Getz playing lead. Our band played all the ensemble parts with soloists like Flip Phillips, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Giuffre and the Condoli brothers. I was a featured a soloist on three pieces that evening as well.
Bob Pawlo: At that moment, what skills and things had you mastered to make working in that situation possible?
Joe Lovano: To keep the gig, I had to be a good section player and a creative soloist. On my first job, we played in a parking lot in St. Louis. Our sheet music was blowing all over the place. There’s no audition. With Woody you came and sat in and played: the gig itself is the audition. So we’re playing and I knew “Four Brothers,” “Apple Honey,” and “Early Autumn,” so I made my way through those things with a confidence that blended with the great Frank Tiberi on lead saxophone. We got to the tune “Caldonia,” which was a very fast blues. Ten years before, Sal Nistico had established a stop-time chorus within his solo at a very fast tempo. We get to this piece and I was hip to that and I was hip to Sal, who was an amazing player. Sal played with an imagination and an execution that was all his own. We got to that moment in the piece and Woody cut the band out and I played maybe five or six unaccompanied choruses on a blues at that tempo and then brought the band back in. From that moment on, the gig was mine. Woody was the kind of leader who wanted to hear people play and contribute to the band. He let the players in the band shape the sound of the band throughout his whole career. That’s why he always had such a great band. He would attract players who were creative. He gave me time to learn the charts and figure all that out. I think he heard something in my improvising that captured him and that was something really special.
Bob Pawlo: To me, when I listen to your solos, I don’t hear a lot of predetermined licks over changes simply for virtuosic display. With you, I constantly hear melodies.
Joe Lovano: It comes from trying to develop a personal approach in the art of improvisation and studying the elements that are fundamental to the heart of music: melody, harmony and rhythm. I was never trapped into a patternistic approach with my playing. A lot of young players today start out with patterns to get around their horn and then they can never shake loose of that. They end up playing the same solo on every tune they play, melodically and rhythmically. But as a kid, I tried to learn songs from the melody and harmony. Part of my routine of practicing was also developing a way to play the drums. I would sit down and play time on the drums. I would also sit at the drums and start to play the melodies that were in my head. When I figured out how to play the melody of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” on the drums, then all of a sudden when I listened to a record of Charlie Parker and Max Roach or Miles and Philly Jo Jones, I heard that’s what they were doing. They were playing the melodies that the horn players were playing – on the drums! That opened up a lot of doors to me about the connection of melody and rhythm.
I like a free-flowing approach with rhythm, and then connecting that with playing a melody. You know when you listen to certain saxophone players who capture you with every phrase: Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins. They capture you with each phrase, with a different combination of notes, with a different combination of rhythmic freeness within the polyrhythmic spectrum. That whole study is still going on for me today.
Bob Pawlo: Every sax player I know who has had the privilege of hearing you in a live performance mentions your utilization of the altissimo register and that you effortlessly play to the top range of the horn. Have you consciously worked at that over the years?
Joe Lovano: Developing that upper register was definitely a point of study and I remember starting to reach beyond the high G. I feel comfortable with the A-flat and then up to the C and up to the F and beyond. Warne Marsh played with an amazing approach up there. Illinois Jacquet was a screamer and Eddie Harris plays an amazing altissimo, with a melodic approach. I was hearing people who were reaching there: Sonny and also Coltrane of course. Around 1974, Milt Jackson and Sonny Stitt came to Cleveland and played at a club called the Smiling Dog Saloon with the local rhythm section. It was a moment when the Modern Jazz Quartet took a little break. Bags was touring and doing some different things outside of the MJQ at the time. They came to Cleveland; I was in his group that played opposite them. I became friendly with Sonny Stitt. One of the first nights we sat together in the dressing room he asked me how many holes were on my horn. He was quizzing me. I had no idea. I started to count up the holes, not the keys. Then he asked, “How many C’s can you hit?” At the time I had three C’s. He said, “Oh, there’s one more,” and he picked his horn up and he played – BAP! – and he hit that high C, but he didn’t show me the fingering, he just hit it. He looked at me and said, “Yeah, there’s another one up there.” That was the moment when I was like, “Oh man, I’ve got some work to do.” I started working on harmonics. It was helpful that I had grown up with Mike Brecker in the mid-70s. Mike was such a virtuoso on his horn and he had the harmonic series so down because he worked at it.
Bob Pawlo: What things are you working on now?
Joe Lovano: I’m trying to execute more freely on my instrument in all keys, and trying to play with a free-flowing approach and connect melodically and harmonically in a free-flowing way. Instead of just studying a set of chord changes, I’m trying to develop a spontaneous harmonic structure with melody and rhythm. I’m playing freely within the chords I’m hearing rather than repeating a sequence that I’ve memorized. I’m working on some things like that and it’s opening up a lot of concepts and approaches in my compositions for my current bands.
Bob Pawlo: What musicians other than saxophone players had an influence on you?
Joe Lovano: From the very beginning, one thing my dad told me was to listen to all the other instruments around me: drums, bass, piano, trumpet and the singers. “You are a singer in your heart on your horn,” he told me. I learned the music was more than just playing the saxophone. As a teenager I started studying piano players and digging Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner. The way Wynton Kelley played or Tommy Flanagan, to be able to hear the personality of the way cats played, the touch, the rhythm, the tone. At the club Bradley’s, I would hear Hank Jones, Roger Kellaway, Kenny Barron and Cecil Taylor, all sit at the same piano and all sound totally different. Realizing your sound isn’t just the tone you achieve on your instrument. It’s your approach in music: your phrasing, touch, breathing, articulation and the depth of your personal expression and feeling in the music. I’m also influenced by a lot of singers: my wife Judi Silvano, Abby Lincoln, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Sinatra, Caruso and Tony Bennett to name a few. Actually, I’m featured on Tony’s latest recording with Lady Gaga, “Cheek to Cheek,” which just won a Grammy. Tony called me and I’m featured on three different tunes, three solo moments. It was a thrill to be in the studio with him and have his embrace. The master drummers in my life who I’ve had the good fortune to play with have taught me a lot about everything: Joe Dukes, Danny D’Imperio, Mel Lewis, Paul Motian, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Idris Muhammad, Lewis Nash, Victor Lewis, Peter Erskine, Jeff Hamilton, John Riley and Bill Stewart, to name a few.
Bob Pawlo: As a bandleader, when the band sets up and a minute before you’re about to play on stage, what are you thinking?
Joe Lovano: I just want to make sure my drummer and everybody’s there! And then I usually have a tune in mind that we’re going to kick off with that just makes everyone feel relaxed and comfortable on stage. We’re not going to rush into the first phrase of the first tune. I may play an unaccompanied intro to set the mood and tempo. That’s what I like to do more and more these days: just make sure everybody’s relaxed and listening – that’s the most important thing for me.
Bob Pawlo: Along those lines, what advice would you give to young jazz musicians in this day and age?
Joe Lovano: Live in the library of the sounds and spirits of the masters of the music. Really try to embrace all the different concepts and approaches that all the cats have laid down for us. The moment of “now” is so important, but you also have to be able to reach into the roots and the history of the music for your “now” to be strong. That’s something that I’ve understood for a while. I try to really live with that concept. Because of that, I know a lot about the history of each instrument and all the major players: where each one was from and how old they were on a certain record date or whatever. In my jazz forum classes, I’m dealing with 18-year-old musicians. I want to make sure they realize that when they’re listening to Sonny Rollins on that record “Dig” with Miles Davis, Sonny is 19 years old at that moment. Herbie Hancock was 22 when he played with Miles. McCoy Tyner was 22 on “My Favorite Things.” Coltrane on “Giant Steps” was around 32. This kind of puts things in perspective. Know the history: know who came up with who. Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Coltrane – they all came up playing together as young folks, influencing each other. Cats were on the scene together like Johnny Griffin, Rollins, Coltrane, Hank Mobley – they were all sharing the same gigs and playing with the same cats and trying to be themselves in that world, not copying each other but being really personal about their approach.
Bob Pawlo: Are there any of the younger players today who have caught your attention?
Joe Lovano: Yeah, on the saxophone — Chris Potter, one of the most creative young players out there. Josh Redman, Tony Malaby, Jaleel Shaw, Ravi Coltrane, Eric Alexander – there are all kinds of folks trying to get themselves together and tell their own story on their instrument. And it’s really a strong, amazing period right now in the creative output of the cats on the scene.
Bob Pawlo: The union’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign is about fair pay, adequate pension contributions and protection of recording rights, among other things. You are an endorser of this campaign and have really stood out as an activist for musicians. Why did you get involved?
Joe Lovano: To shake up the promoters and club owners around the world who have been exploiting us jazz musicians from day one. Justice for Jazz Artists is so important, and it has to apply to all of our work. This campaign is just the first step in reaching that goal. People need to know that we love to play and we live to play but we also play to live so show the love back and treat us right!
Bob Pawlo: What is your message to your fellow jazz artists about why they should get involved in the campaign?
Joe Lovano: Jazz musicians need to let the world know we care about our future and the future of the music. That’s it! We are a part of the scene that’s happening today. The moment is now. Musicians need to support each other also. Go out and dig each other when the opportunity arises. Go and hear the music played and be a part of it. You have to be on the scene and not look through the window at it. Be there.