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A true gentleman of Jazz Has passed - Joe Fortunato

Joe Fortunato was a Jazz legend in the Philadelphia music scene for over 70 years. His contribution to Jazz has always lived-up too the old standard song title cliché “It Don’t Mean a Thing . . . If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”  I honestly can say that, because for more than 50 years he was my best friend and brother in the field of music and everyday life.

I would like to share some memorable thoughts plus experiences that I was fortunate to incur and pay homage for a real “Gentleman of Jazz.”

Joe was Born: May 5, 1930 and died of natural causes on October 28, 2011.

He was born and raised in South Philly along with other notable musicians in this close-knit neighborhood part of town. Joe also had a friendly relationship with another jazz saxophonist who was a few years older,  his name was Charlie Ventura, and his brothers Benny and Ernie Ventura, who also were musicians within a small radius of city blocks of South Philadelphia.

During this time in the 1940’s listening to the radio was a primary part of entertainment which many households were tuning in to Comedy shows such as Burns & Allen, Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen & Charley McCarthy also the mystery shows included “Inner Sanctum,” “The Shadow” “Superman” and others were heard nightly.  The distinctive baritone voice of Brace Beemer - the voice of “The Lone Ranger” series for many years was heard weekly.

Joe’s inspiration to Big Band music and Jazz was when he listened to a late night disc jockey on WIBG-AM a Philadelphia station hosted by Doug Arthur when he played a recording by tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins’ classic jazz rendition of the popular song “Body and Soul.”

This is when he definitely wanted to learn how to play the tenor saxophone and pursue a musical career, even though he did not have any knowledge of jazz until later years.

With this in mind, his Jazz Workshop always stressed to students this important fact “when you communicate musically with your listening audience, it has to be enjoyable in every aspect of your performance."

When I was a senior in high school, my personal interest in commercial art and music became evident because many DOO-WOP singers surrounded my neighborhood plus various musicians that formed small combo bands and playing in local musical lounges & nightspots during February of 1956.  

During this time, I wanted to learn how to play the tenor sax and tried-out for the high school marching band in order to be exposed to the musical surroundings.

I learned the basic knowledge of reading music from the Rubank instructional book for saxophones. The schools’ music teacher who was an accomplished violinist – but new very little about the saxophone and reed instruments gave this to me. As I was making progress with the rudiments and advancing at a quick pace, he suggested that I should seek a private teacher that specialized in teaching the saxophone.

Fortunately, a short time after I found an excellent instructor by the name of Mike Guerra the former Granoff Music School teacher, of John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan, and many others around Philadelphia, he also had his private studio in the Presser Building located 18th & Chestnut Streets in center city Philadelphia.

The many months of instructional lessons and practice advanced me technically also to be a pretty good site-reader from the manuscript as well.

During this time, I would always purchase newly released record albums & single records of popular music, rhythm & blues and instrumental recordings of saxophonists such as Georgie Auld, Sam “The Man” Taylor, Illinois Jacquet, and Red Prysock.

The record store manager had brought to my attention a new 45rpm release that was being played on the radio and getting much exposure in the Tri-State area as a theme song for a local radio show. The title was “Go Joe Go” by Joe Fortunato playing the saxophone. 

Ironically, within a few months, a musician friend who lived on my same city block invited me to a rehearsal at his house in order to see how a group of professional musicians conducted a rehearsal.  To my amazement – The saxman was Joe Fortunato and I had the opportunity to personally meet Joe to express what admiration I had for his style of playing the saxophone.  Joe was a generous person and knew that my eagarness to learn was obvious. He extended his generousiity by having a lenghty conversation that shared some pointers & ideas regarding the topic of jazz improvisation with the saxophone and the music business in general. - It was on a Sunday evening in 1957 that I could recall, when I was invited by three older friends who were members of an after-hour weekend private nightclub called The El Rancho located in Chester, PA. They wanted me to experience the excitement of a final closing-night live performance of major performers.  This place always presented Big Bands, and top male & female vocalists of the day.  Appearing on this performance was Lionel Hampton and his orchestra, alternating with Lloyd Price and his band and tenor sax man Red Prysock and his band playing his hit recording of “Hand Clappin.’”  As I was witnessing these acts generating standing ovations of crowd enjoyment throughout the establishment, it gave me an insight of the many conversations I had with Joe Fortunato; that “when you communicate musically with your listening audience, it has to be enjoyable in every aspect of your performance.”  

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Reader Comments (6)

For some reason I looked on line today for a reference to the old Balligo in West Coshohocken. I am sorry to read about the passing of Joe. The first time I heard Mr. Fortunado and the "Live Swinging Jazz" that the yellow sign outside the Balligo promised was circa 1986. I wasn't old enough to be in the bar, but I was enjoying the music so much that I skipped the beer and only drank the music. My fondest memory is of trying to put together a public radio style expose for my Temple University news writing class. The night I decided to tape, 2:00 a.m. came the doors were closed and the band played on and on. Magical blues and jazz.
November 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael
Michael,
Unfortunately the Balligo is no longer there - - - Joe Fortunato and his group was the house band for many years, which played host and welcomed many visiting musicians to play & sing. Joe was a generous and special person especially to a younger musician or non-musician that enjoyed music. Thank you for the post and visit to our website. We welcome any interesting information and comments that will keep "Mainstream Jazz Alive." Please stay in touch to visit more upcoming interesting topics and excerpts of Jazz favorites from our book - "Jazz Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow."

Danny
November 25, 2011 | Registered CommenterDanny Luciano
Joe Fortunato or Joe "Fort", as he sometimes referred to himself, is a jazz hero. To me a hero is one that gives without being asked and is willing to take chances to help & advance others. He helped me and lots of other guys get up on the band stand and play. Starting on tenor as a first instrument at age 30 was a tall order. I recall being on the band stand next to Joe all nervous the first time playing and then hearing his lush tenor swing sound. It was an inspiration - an example of excellence, something to reach for.

I had the pleasure of first studying and later becoming friends with Joe for over 17 years. I hired "Act 3" to play at my wedding - Joe played "My One and Only Love" while my wife and I took our vows. Later that day I played my first time in public with Joe. A blues of course. Those things meant a lot to me then and even more now.

On many occasions Joe would keep me going after feeling pretty dejected after a tough nite sitting in at a jam session.. Once I recall him saying " Man do you want to be a musician or a saxophone player"? At first I didn't get it but then I did. Learning an instrument as an adult requires one to be pretty thick skinned and may also entail skipping some typical steps in theory to get with it. Some guys wanted me to start from the beginning but at 35 years old Joe recognized that being a sax man was foremost.. theory was a means to explain what you just played rather than how to play.

I am really happy that Joe recorded with Joey & John DeFranchesco. When I heard "Blues in the Closet" it on WRTI , while it was playing, I said to myself 'damn, that cat has really got Joe's style down or Joe learned everything he knows from this guy'. It turned out Joe Fort was that guy. I called Joe as soon as the DJ announced the players and told him the story... I can still hear him laughing.

That's the kind of guy he was.
December 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave Risilia
Dave, I'm glad that you had the opportunity to experience Joe Fortunato's friendship thru the years. For the 50+years that I have known him - he always kept an open door to his bandstand for a young person & experienced older musicians to sit-in and enjoy playing with other musicians. For instance; during the time when Papa John DeFrancesco was working with ACT- III, many times he would invite a young Joey DeFrancesco at the age of 9 to sit-in and play too experience playing with a group. His generosity and dedication to helping friends will surely be missed.
December 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterDanny Luciano
Thanks for the article on "Jazz on the South Side". Your support and dedication to the introduction of JOTSS is priceless.
You are providing your readers with valuable information.
Best of Luck
Lorraine
Executive Director
Jazz On The South Side
January 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJazz On The South Side
Your theme song “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me” says it all! . . . We are glad to hear that "JOTSS" Jazzonthesouthside.com is back in the spotlight once again. Our staff members will be looking forward to attend all of your events in the near future. As Mr. Nick once said . . . "It don't Mean A Thing . . . If It Ain't Got That Swing!"


Best regards, Danny
January 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterDanny Luciano

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