Sax legend Al Gallodoro would have turned 100 on June 20. A recently uncovered interview sheds some new light on the master performer…
What can you say to someone who has never heard Al Gallodoro? Beauty of tone, never sacrificed for technique, though the technique is beyond anything you had thought possible. Perfect intonation in all registers and circumstances. Warmth of expression, with a direct and immediate appeal. His altissimo range on saxophone has never been surpassed. He would rise and fall into that register with no hint of transition, tongued or slurred, every note right on the head and beautifully in tune.
To me, the closest comparison would be to Jascha Heifetz. They both stood out above all others, and not just for their total technical command. There was a kind of universal musicality, an always expressive perfection that set them apart. Even their tones and vibrato were very similar: beautifully focused, always contained, no matter what the technical demands, and a classic expressivity transcending style and era.
On the other hand, the clarinet, his first love, was surprisingly different: the sheer velocity of the technique, the tone leaping from the instrument in great sweeping cascades of sound. Where the saxophone was lighter, sweeter, more laid-back – classic – the clarinet seemed heavier, fuller, packed with sound – more romantic. If the saxophone was Jascha Heifetz, the clarinet was Harry James, bursting with passion. He played clarinet under the world’s greatest conductors on the highest international level, yet such are the ironies of history that he will probably be remembered most for his saxophone playing.
Yet, as if to top this astonishment of riches, he was also one of the great improvisers – ideas leaped from his horns at the speed of thought, melodic, inventive, and almost unplayable by anyone else. His vocabulary was traditional Western music and the American Songbook, which is probably why he is not thought of as a jazz musician.
Some years back, I was at a dinner party in Tampa, Florida – an orchestra fundraiser – when Ruggiero Ricci, the internationally renowned violin virtuoso, appeared at the door, violin in tow. He was guest artist with the orchestra that week. He chatted a few minutes, took out his violin, tuned, secured it under his chin, and said, “What would you like to hear?” Someone said, “How about the Bach Chaconne?” and he was off. He did this for an hour, anything we asked, done to concert perfection.
That’s Al Gallodoro. He would stand before music professionals at national conventions, universities, school clinics – everywhere. “What would you like to hear?” And he meant anything: concertos, orchestral excerpts, the literature for three instruments, songs, improvisations; he talked, explained, demonstrated chords, techniques. He stood in a room with the woodwinds of the Marine Band and dazzled them for two hours. “What would you like to hear?”
He once played a Klose clarinet etude for a friend of mine, then said, “That’s not easy, but here’s what’s hard,” and proceeded to play it through a half step lower. Never a falter. Never a misplaced tongue.
Al Gallodoro’s career spanned the scope and trajectory of 20th-century American music as that of no other. He was born in the year Thomas Edison made his first disc recordings (1913), the Six Brown Brothers were the rage of the vaudeville circuit with their Saxophone Sextet, and Rudy Wiedoeft had yet to make his first recording.
Those decades at the turn of the century gave birth to a unique brand of spectacular musician, incomparable even to this day. Most were from poor immigrant families; all faced hardship and poverty: Rudy Wiedoeft, 1893, the first member of the Wiedoeft Family Orchestra to be born in this country; Louis Armstrong, 1901, rising from the slums and bordellos of New Orleans to become the ultimate jazz icon; Benny Goodman, 1909, raised in the Chicago tenements where he said a meal was often just a cup of coffee; and Al Gallodoro, 1913, his short boyhood spent in the sun-drenched marshes of Tickfaw, Louisiana.
Their practice habits were legendary. Arnold Brilhart said of Rudy Wiedoeft, “You just can’t believe how much he practiced.” Harry James said that Goodman practiced more that his whole band put together. But all agree, no one ever out-practiced Al Gallodoro. They were prodigious performers by their early teens, yet lacked formal education. When Wiedoeft was asked what schools he had attended, he replied, “The School of Hard Knocks, just like you.”
Money haunted them their whole lives: Wiedoeft spent years searching for the Lost Dutchman gold mine of Death Valley; and both Goodman and Gallodoro provided endless fodder for band bus musicians telling money yarns coast to coast.
Looking back, after all these years, we can recognize these patterns as they emerge, the idiosyncrasies, the unique personalities, the hard work. But their genius?
Ah, that’s the mystery.
Al Gallodoro was working vaudeville and the prohibition clubs while still a boy, and as a teen rode the Wiedoeft phenomenon with his own radio show (“I did the Wiedoeft solos – that’s all there was”). At 15 he was an integral part of New Orleans jazz (“Papa Jack and I started the Dukes of Dixieland at the Orpheum Theater in 1928. They’re all dead now, and the Dukes of Dixieland is a forgotten thing”). He thrived and soloed in the big band era (“We played every state in the Union”), the rise of broadcast radio (“Every station had its own staff musicians”), and the New York freelance scene (“We did jingles, soundtracks, background music, you name it”). The networks all had symphony orchestras and his amazing skills were in constant demand (“I worked with so many conductors I can’t remember them all”). His “Saxophone Contrasts” album became a saxophone classic – no other saxophonist could have done it. He soloed everywhere (“I did the ‘Concerto for Doubles’ at ten universities that year”), and left a legacy of school programs and clinics across the country (“In Indianapolis I did eight schools in two days, and then I did a concert on the second night. That was rough. But if you enjoy doing it, it’s O.K.”)
He saw the rise of rock music (“ABC started a live rock ‘n’ roll show – four bands a day, starting in the morning. Before rock there was just one ‘feel’ to pop tunes: your musical show, your movies. Now there were two ‘feels’”).
He saw the demise of the network symphonies (“Antonini at CBS was the last to go”) and, finally, the phasing out of staff musicians altogether. (“Today the music business is shot, actually shot. Believe me, things are rough. You don’t hear clarinets and saxes any more, right? You just hear singing, guitars, and so forth. That’s it.”)
There was a Paul Whiteman retrospective concert in Philadelphia in the late 70s organized by Dick Sudhalter. It was a large aggregation featuring many of the original members. The Academy of Music was packed. For some reason, the lead alto chair was on the far right, and I couldn’t help but think how awkward it would be to get to center stage when it was time to solo. But when the announcer finished with, “Ladies and gentlemen…the world’s greatest saxophonist – Al Gallodoro!” he leaped from his chair and danced to center stage, his feet hardly touching the ground. It was a mini-ballet. Al proceeded to play “Oodles of Noodles” better than anyone ever has, took his bows to thunderous applause, and danced back to his seat. I have never seen anyone enjoy performing that much. Perfect.
I called him the next day. I was in the middle of interviewing the last of relatives and musicians who had known Rudy Wiedoeft, and it struck me that Gallodoro himself, his thoughts and experiences, should be recorded for posterity – it never dawned on me that he would still be playing 30 years later. We set up a time to meet at his home on Long Island, and early morning, a week later, I headed out to East Islip.
He greeted me warmly. We talked over our mutual acquaintances in the music business. I put the recorder in the center of the kitchen table where it was soon forgotten as his passion for music, his instruments, life itself, took over. He spoke with enthusiasm of the many fine players he had known, had a clear idea of their abilities, and was unstinting in his praise of the great players. He never criticized anyone by name, but only addressed the problems or flaws themselves. Later, we walked and talked in his back yard. It was a hot, muggy day on Long Island, but the yard was shaded, cool, and beautifully kept, for which he credited his wife.
To read my interview with Al, see www.Local802afm.org. (In the search box at the bottom of the home page, type in “Al Gallodoro.”) Please check it out: Al’s words are a cherished piece of music history. For even more on Al, see www.AlGallodoro.com.
Ted Hegvik played principal clarinet with the Tampa Philharmonic, St. Petersburg Symphony and San Carlo Opera, and was the on-call saxophonist for the Philadelphia Orchestra for 30 years.