802 Bookshelf: Playing It By Ear

an autobiography by John LaPorta, Cadence Jazz Books, 2001, paperback, 271 pp., $18 plus postage

Volume CI, No. 9September, 2001

Bill Crow

John LaPorta’s career as a performer and composer/arranger has been intertwined with a remarkable sequence of musicians including Leopold Stokowski, Woody Herman, Kenny Clarke, Neal Hefti, Herb Pomeroy, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Lennie Tristano, Warne Marsh, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Evans, Gunther Schuller and Leonard Bernstein. His career as an educator includes 35 years at Berklee College of Music (Professor Emeritus), 25 years at National Stage Band Camps, and much private teaching.

LaPorta was born in 1920 in Philadelphia. His father chose the clarinet as the instrument for him to study as a pre-teen – but unfortunately he chose a teacher who wasn’t a reed player. Although John learned to read music, he also developed some serious playing problems that had to be corrected later. He moved on to the tenor saxophone in his teens, and joined one of the string bands that Philadelphia is known for.

John finally found a good teacher at the Settlement Music School in South Philadelphia, Joseph Gigliotti, who started him all over again on the clarinet, and he was able to repair the damage done when he began studying the instrument. In 1936, his sophomore year in high school, he was admitted to the American Youth Symphony under Leopold Stokowski.

Having played in nightclubs since the age of fourteen, he was sure that he wanted to be a professional musician. In search of a more stimulating music program, he transferred in his junior year to Mastbaum Vocational School, where he found the musical education he was seeking.

LaPorta lost his father to a heart attack when he was nineteen, and his mother a year later. He became a regular on the Philadelphia jazz scene, developing his music at gigs and jam sessions, where he met many of the New York musicians who were passing through. In 1942 he joined the Buddy Williams orchestra, where he switched to playing lead alto. Bill Harris joined that band, and when it broke up because Williams went into the Army, Harris went on to join Bob Chester’s band. He got LaPorta a job there when Chester’s lead alto, Johnny Bothwell, left.

While traveling with Chester, LaPorta began writing arrangements for the band. He stayed for 18 months, travelling around the country. After marrying Virginia Trisler, a girl he met in Cincinnati, he left Chester and they moved to New York. A couple of trips to see the Woody Herman band, to visit Bill Harris, led to an offer to join the saxophone section on 3rd alto, replacing Bill Shine. LaPorta joined the band in 1944, when they were playing at the Hotel Pennsylvania and also playing a weekly radio show sponsored by Wildroot, a hair preparation. They soon went into the Paramount Theater for a ten-week engagement. The band, the First Herd, was an outstanding group, with exciting arrangements and soloists and great ensemble playing. LaPorta stayed with the band until the end of 1946 when, in California, Woody disbanded the group for a while for personal reasons.

LaPorta’s chapter on the Herman band is filled with inside information. He describes each musician, tells stories about them, describes the way head arrangements were made, chronicles the many changes in personnel and how those changes affected the band, and gives an interesting description of the commissioning of the Ebony Concerto by Igor Stravinsky, and how the band responded to rehearsing and performing the piece. When Herman later recorded Ebony Concerto, LaPorta played the solo clarinet part.

LaPorta and his wife returned to New York, and he began the process of re-applying for his 802 card. He describes visiting the union floor in those days, and searching for jam sessions, some at Nola studios on Broadway. He had met Lennie Tristano in Chicago, while on the road with Woody, and when Tristano moved to New York in 1947 LaPorta began studying with him. He writes about his relationship with Tristano, and his eventual decision to discontinue his studies with him.

The book continues with interesting descriptions of LaPorta’s adventures on the New York jazz scene, recording with Neil Hefti and Charlie Parker, working with the Jazz Composer’s Workshop and Charles Mingus, forming his own quintet, getting his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Manhattan School of Music, composing music, recording with Kenny Clarke, writing for Stan Kenton, recording with the Sandole brothers in Philadelphia, recording the Brahms Sonata for Clarinet and Piano with Zita Carno, working with Gunther Schuller on composers forums and on a jazz festival sponsored by Brandeis University’s Festival of the Arts, and participating in many other creative musical projects in New York City and on Long Island.

In 1962 LaPorta joined the faculty at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he developed an instrumental performance diploma program. The book’s later chapters are filled with interesting information on the development of high school and college jazz programs. A few pages of interesting photos are included, as well as a list of LaPorta’s recordings and compositions. He and his wife now live in Sarasota, Florida. A copy of this book is in the Local 802 library.