Joe Lovano still doesn't wear Armani
Race was the issue du jour of the 1990s jazz world. This is thanks to trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the musical director of the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra, the most influential jazz ensemble in the country.
Marsalis' neo- conservative style, his spearheading of the "Young Lions" movement and his promotion of almost-exclusively black jazz history sparked cries of racism from white writers and critics embittered that a young black hotshot was the new face of jazz, responsible for institutionalizing a musical genre that had, till then, defied institutionalization.
Enter eminent saxophonist Joe Lovano. A burly man of Italian-American stock, Lovano emerged as a major force in '90s jazz. Nearly the entire decade was benchmarked by Lovano's tirelessly creative work. Albums ranged from hard-bop small group work (Landmark, From the Soul, Tenor Legacy), to thematic opuses that broke new ground (Rush Hour, Celebrating Sinatra). Two Grammy nominations ensued before 52nd Street Themes won in 2000. Lovano has topped critics' polls and garnered magazine awards annually since 1994.
So Lovano was an antidote for white critics suddenly threatened by Marsalis' implication that whites were irrelevant to jazz's history and future. The New York Times gave voice to this sentiment when it published a Lovano profile titled "A Saxophonist Who Doesn't Wear Armani," an inference comparing Lovano's beatnik dress with the haute-couture style of Marsalis' entourage. But it also implicitly set jazz along racial divides.
This raised the ire of many, including guitarist Jim Hall, who responded, "Jazz is part African, part European, part Latin, part male, part female, part Sonny Rollins, part Joe Lovano."
Lovano grew up in working-class Cleveland, the son of Tony "Big T" Lovano, a respected tenor saxman of the Illinois Jacquet school. Big T started young Joe early, inculcating jazz fundamentals while exposing him to live shows by Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
"I was lucky," Lovano says from his Hudson Valley home. "My dad was a lead player in Cleveland. He and all the guys he played with were my teachers. I learned that if I got this tune down and did like this, I would fit in."
Fitting in was part of the learning process, Lovano said. You learned to imitate the old masters before you go your own way. But such inter-generational mingling is rare these days.
"You have to learn from your elders," Lovano says. "Things are handed down from generation to generation — and it's always been like that. But there's not a club scene anymore. There's more jazz education happening in universities now. It's intimate and more relaxing, because you're not just trying to make money. But kids can get stuck in their crowd. For me, coming up was a multicultural experience."
Lovano's multicultural experience included playing at weddings and parties, an experience relatively rare in this age of DJs. During such gigs, he was responsible, as the lead instrument, to play all the melodies, the set tempos, to lead and get people to dance.
"I learned how to play doing that," Lovano says.
It was the beginning of a long, long apprenticeship, ultimately involving stints with Woody Herman's Thundering Herd (1976-'79), the Mel Lewis Vanguard Orchestra (1980-'92), the Paul Motian Trio and Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Ensemble — not to mention additional work with McCoy Tyner, Joshua Redman, Ray Brown, Branford Marsalis, Cyrus Chestnut and others.
But when asked about the role of race in his fruitful career, Lovano remembers one man who may best represent the journeyman's roots: Brother Jack McDuff.
After Lovano graduated from the Berklee School of Music, where he now teaches, he started touring (as "the only white kid in a seven-piece band") in the so-called chitlin circuit with the R&B-infused jazz outfit run by the late organist.
"I was inspired to play with those guys and have them accept me," Lovano says of his first professional gig. "I always wanted to be accepted by the older cats. And they really dug me. That really turned me around. When you play and sweat with these cats, there is nothing like it."