Jazz Institute of Chicago

PLAYING IT BY EAR: An Autobiography

by John LaPorta
Cadence Jazz Books, 272 pages, $18 (www.cadencebuilding.com)
reviewed by Don Rose

John LaPorta is one of those exceptional figures in the jazz world who spent a lifetime hovering at the edge of greatness and perhaps even wide acclaim, but never experienced the major public breakthrough many think he deserved. An innovator always pushing the conceptual envelope, he was a member of Woody Herman's first Herd&n—the 1944-46 Apple Honey band—who moved into increasingly progressive and experimental musical circles, studying with Lennie Tristano, working at length with Charles Mingus and Gil Evans, then working in the classical field as well, recording with Leonard Bernstein.

A composer, clarinetist and alto saxophonist, he played with and often recorded with some of the greats of the last half century—Charlie Parker included—and went on to spend much of his career as a pioneer in jazz education. His story offers some excellent observations on the business end of the jazz world, some commentary on black-white relations in jazz, insights into the life of a dedicated musician and plenty of rich gossip.

Born in Philadelphia in 1920, by 1942 he not only finds himself jamming with the young Dizzy Gillespie, but with an unknown trumpet player named Joe Facio whose lines he believes may have influenced Gillespie's style and anticipated the bebop movement. Later, with the Herman band, he gives a rundown on all the players in that most exuberant of troupes, noting their different responses to and absorption of the new music.

One of the best of them was the brilliant trumpet player Sonny Berman, who was deeply influenced by Gillespie's music and who tragically died young—but LaPorta pulls his punch by attributing it solely to a heart attack, when heroin actually had most to do with it.

Berman is one of scores of musicians, famous and lesser known, who wend their way through the narrative—leaders, arrangers, soloists, section men, lead players, each of whom is briefly, if erratically, synopsized. In the best such sketches we get some sense of character and what the person's music and strengths are about; in too many others we don't get much more than height, weight and birth date.

LaPorta also shows how one decent band manager played a role in the Herd's collective morale—and how a corrupt manager, one who ultimately went to jail, destroyed it. Before the band broke up it recorded two of LaPorta's compositions, "Non-Alcoholic" and "Sonny Speaks." (Both are still around in various Herman collections.)

Searching for new directions, he begins studying with Tristano, whose teaching and playing created its own idiosyncratic school of modern music through disciples such as Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, William Russo and others. LaPorta seemed to be on his way as another such disciple—he recorded with the master—but rejected the cult-like atmosphere Tristano engendered and his increasingly weird mannerisms.

LaPorta tells us that Tristano began speaking of himself in the third person, admonishing his pupils that "Lennie thinks you should do such and such," or "Lennie doesn't know about that."

"Lennie left the student with no doubt as to what Lennie felt without Lennie making any unequivocal statement," says LaPorta. "Indirect intentions, not committed verbally, Lennie remained free of accountability."

Marsh, said LaPorta, apparently got fed up with Tristano at one point but wound up returning to the fold. Whatever his personality problems and eccentricities, however, Tristano lead some of the first freely improvised music sessions, anticipating free jazz by nearly a decade.

LaPorta had the good fortune to be befriended by Barry Ulanov, an editor of the influential Metronome magazine, who promoted him in its pages and included him in some historic sessions. Two of these were live broadcasts pitting modernist musicians against Dixielanders in musical "battles." The modernists included Parker, Gillespie and Fats Navarro; the airchecks have been issued through the years as part of the numerous collections of Bird ephemera.

LaPorta also played as a section man in the band Neil Hefti assembled for a Norman Granz recording session that included a string section. One of the tunes was called "Repetition." Parker ambled in from another session, looked at the music—which had not included a solo—and asked to blow over a written passage. An instant, one-take classic!

LaPorta later hooked up with Mingus, who was just emerging as a major organizing and composing talent in addition to being a sought-after instrumentalist. At first it was as part of a group the clarinetist helped assemble called the Jazz Composers Workshop, which included pianist-composer John Lewis and the seminal drummer Kenny Clark, as well as Teo Macero, who would subsequently gain fame as Miles Davis's producer and co-composer at Columbia Records.

The band they put together in the early '50s played several successful concerts of original music, including what were then far-out atonal pieces. After the group broke up, Mingus incorporated some of the personnel into his own Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop. LaPorta discovered that a recording of the new group included a couple of pieces he composed but Mingus published under his own name. There are other yarns here dealing with the notorious Mingus temper and related personality twists.

Throughout the years this would not be the only time, LaPorta writes, that his works would either be stolen or go uncredited. In a strange episode years later, Herman asks LaPorta to be the clarinet soloist on a new recording of the "Ebony Concerto," which was written for the original Herd by Igor Stravinsky, who conducted it himself. LaPorta was delighted to take the role, then found he went uncredited on the album—everyone assumed Herman played the solo and Herman made no effort to correct the record.

Getting screwed, one way or another, by the occasional fellow musician or, more frequently, by a recording company executive, is a subtheme of the book. He regales us with several tales of being beaten out of some or all of fees due him and of promises broken or just plain being jerked around—matters too many musicians know much about already.

Nevertheless, LaPorta's dedication to the music and his phenomenal persistence have him putting together rehearsal groups, big bands and small combos and managing to get playing dates and recording dates. He also helps put together a number of professional organizations and musicians' societies.

In his efforts to finally obtain advanced degrees in music and education he continues his own studies with private teachers and institutionally at the Manhattan School of Music. At the school he studies with Gunther Schuller, the composer, performer and historian, with whom he forms an on-going professional relationship.

He and the family he raises must rely, however, on an economic base of teaching—again the story of so many fine musicians. He is, however, genuinely enthusiastic about some of the high school and youth bands he helps develop, often with associates such as Marshall Brown.
There are interesting passages about forming an international youth band that gets to play some major dates, and a bizarre tale of being brought to Venezuela to work with an aspiring Latino group. He is once again, however unintentionally, screwed over on the visit.

Again, some of the most important players and composers of the age—far too numerous to list here—manage to intersect with LaPortas's life and it's useful to get his take on each of them. He is especially generous to many fine section-men and lead players, such as trumpet players Louis Mucci or Conrad Gozzo, who rarely get much public recognition.

He winds up at the famed Berklee College of music in its formative days and stays on to become a fixture there. He becomes a founding member of what is now the International Association of Jazz Educators. He writes and writes—both music compositions and teaching manuals—and continues to play and innovate and win professional awards. The list of his published and played works and recording sessions listed in the appendices is more than impressive; in combination with his narrative it makes you want to get back to his work and check out so much of it.

This is a highly valuable book, not only for the personal story of a unique and undersung musician, but also for its chronicle of its times and universalities about the life of a working jazz musician who never quite reaches star status.

The one thing this book needs, however, is a professional editor, on two levels. First, there are errors and inconsistencies of style galore. The tenor player Herbie Steward gets his name mis-spelled three out of four times, for example. Any decent copy editor could have brought these into line.

Second, LaPorta can narrate adequately but his writing is stilted, awkward and repetitive; he also jumps around in time in ways that are often confusing. Okay—he is not a professional writer and we need not expect him to be, though some musicians write excellent prose. It's the publisher's job to provide editing and narrative guidance and Cadence fails miserably in this regard.

Having said this, it's still a service to provide LaPorta the opportunity to tell his story and give us the chance to read it, however poorly edited it may be.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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