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8:26PM

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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