Gene Lorello took up the flute so he could play in the marching band in high school in West Virginia. “I began studying the saxophone and clarinet at about the same time, and I’ve been playing ever since,” he told Allegro in a recent interview.
Soon after graduating he moved to Cincinnati to play alto sax with the Carl Deacon Moore orchestra, a well known “territory band.” Two years later he moved to New York, joined Local 802, and landed a job with Mitchell Ayres. And a year later he was preparing to move to the CBS Symphony when he was called up for the armed forces. After three and a half years in the army he returned to New York and began to reestablish his performing career.
Among the musicians he has played with over the years are Charlie Barnett, Xavier Cugat, Sautter Finnegan and Sammy Kay. He played in West Side Story on Broadway, and at Rockefeller Center with society bands, including with Edith Piaf. He worked with Dorothy Lamour.
Lorello has always been a talented repairman. “From the day I started on any instrument, I found myself taking it apart and fixing it myself. And whenever I got it fixed in the shop, I had to take it apart and re-fix it.”
His first repair job was carried out early in his career, during a broadcast by the Carl Deacon Moore band. “The top pad fell out of my saxophone; the high F key,” he recalls. “Another saxophone player raced after it. It was a bad situation; I was the lead alto player and a soloist at the same time. He gave it to me and I shoved it back in.”
Widely known as a player who did his own repairs, Lorello says he “got tired of getting a good job that was supposed to run for a long time, and then having it close in two days. One night around 1960, I was riding the subway with another musician, a nice guy who played the saxophone and flute, and he asked, ‘What are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, I think I’m going to repair flutes, clarinets and saxophones.’ And he says, ‘Take mine.’ That was my first repair job. I’ve never stopped repairing since then – but I didn’t stop playing, either.”
Lorello says he got into making flutes “kind of accidentally, a couple of years later. I was talking to another flute player – he was a good flutist, but kind of an arrogant guy – and I said, ‘I like the flute, but they don’t make them right. I’ve played three of them, and they’re lousy instruments.’ And he says, ‘Do you think you could do better?’ It was like a challenge.
“I went home and I thought, why not? I already know how to make a good head joint, just by thinking about it. That’s how that conversation had started. We were talking about the theory and I told the guy that unless a saxophone has a good mouthpiece and a good neck on it, you can throw it away. With a flute, it’s the head joint – the upper third of a flute is your flute. After that it’s a question of making the rest of the mechanism work, or improving it a little bit. I had the theory right from the beginning.”
Before he started building his first flute Lorello spent five or six weeks discussing the theory of the instrument with Henry Zlotnik, a good friend and a flute teacher. “He couldn’t turn a screw, but when he picked up a flute he knew what was wrong with it.
“I improved a lot of things on the instrument. It took a long time to make them because they were all hand made. I didn’t have any machinery; it was just my two hands. A screwdriver, a hammer, whatever. I made my first lathe out of a Sunbeam electric razor.
“There must have been about 120 different operations in a single flute – making the tubing, the pins and all that stuff by hand. I spent a lot of time in my shop – and when I was in there I wasn’t making any money playing. So it was pretty hard supporting myself. But there are quite a few instruments that I’ve made all over America today.”
Music has always been Gene Lorello’s first love – but he points out that “to play good music, you need a good instrument. I got interested in making a good instrument after I discovered that the manufacturers didn’t know as much as I thought they should. Why should you have to start warming up an hour before you’re going to play? In the business we’re in, you’ve got to be able to pick up an instrument and play it without any preparation. I started making instruments with the idea that a musician had to be able to pick up the instrument and play the first note well.”