John Oddo, in a class by himself

Volume 119, No. 5May, 2019

Jim Saporito

It is with great sadness that I write these words about my friend and colleague John Oddo. His untimely death is so fresh in my mind that I am still processing the loss. I feel as if I could pick up the phone to call him at any time, but I am jerked back to the grim reality that I will never have the chance to speak with him again.

John and I met at the Eastman School of Music in 1976. We played in school ensembles and also in a club date band on the weekends. John was an accomplished pianist with a huge repertoire of American popular songs. His gifts as an arranger were already quite apparent with what he was writing for the Eastman Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Ray Wright, a legendary arranging teacher. John was Ray’s first graduate assistant.

After Eastman, we went our separate ways. After some time, when John settled in Westchester county, our paths would cross again when he would hire me to play percussion on his recording projects. His arrangements and orchestrations were second to none. Always organized and completely prepared, John was a continuation of the art of arranging and conducting made famous by the likes of giants like Nelson Riddle. John was in this rarefied class of top arrangers from coast to coast.

All the musicians who worked for and with John had the utmost respect for him as a musician and as a person. He never drew attention to himself, ever. John let his work speak for him.

I had been working with John for quite some time when the following occurred. John and I were walking to our plane for a trip with Debby Boone to play her Christmas show with the Utah symphony. I told John how much I enjoyed playing the show and how his arrangements always swung. I mentioned how beautiful his arrangement of “White Christmas” was and that it ended the show with such a lift. He said, “Jim, I have never told anyone this. I got a call from Johnny Mandel some years ago and he told me that my arrangement of ‘White Christmas’ was the greatest arrangement of that song that he had ever heard.” Wow! There is no higher praise than that of an esteemed colleague who also happens to be a legend himself. It was no surprise to me that John kept this compliment private. There were many more throughout his career.

I hope this story illustrates what a rare person John was, but also shows how great an artist he was. I also hope there are young arrangers and musicians in our industry to carry the mantle that John left. He set the bar very high. If someone could do half of what John achieved, they would be a great success. My wife Mindy and I have a hole in our hearts. Rest in peace, old friend.

(Editor’s note: see our obituary for John Oddo.)