They Keep Going Back to Joe's

A jazz expatriate returns home and visits his sax master.
June 23, 2000

Joe Viola is the kind of saxophone teacher who can turn your whole world around in five minutes. Many of his former students tell stories of how Joe's simple and straightforward teaching methods provided immediate solutions to tough problems. Some of Joe's students who mastered those lessons have developed into world-class saxophonists, including Joe Lovano '72, Donald Harrison '83, Richie Cole '67, Berklee Woodwind Chair Bill Pierce '73, and Antonio Hart '91. Through his ensemble instruction, Joe also provided tutelage to non-saxophonists, including Quincy Jones '51, Gary Burton '62, and Herb Pomeroy '52. And while players of that calibre typically have little free time on their hands, Joe's students often stop by his Stoneham, Massachusetts, house for a visit when they swing through town. It's a testament to what his students and friends say is Joe's greatness as a teacher and his sweetness as a man.

Such was the case last month, when alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano '51 made a rare concert appearance in the Boston area. Thanks to the socializing spirit of Viola's wife Alice, the Mariano visit to the Viola house quickly turned into an all-out reunion. Among those who stopped by were Mariano, trumpeter and former Berklee professor Herb Pomeroy, Berklee President Lee Eliot Berk and his wife Mrs. Susan G. Berk, Emilio Lyons ("the Sax Doctor" at Boston's Rayburn's Music store), former student Mark Pinto, and former Berklee staff member and bassist Dave Matayabas. Three of Joe's grandchildren, all of whom are musicians, also attended.

"Joe is so warm and supportive and just a sweetheart. He was a great teacher," Mariano says of the man he studied with in the 1950s. He says Joe's counsel immediately improved his sound.

"When I went to Joe, I had a very thin sound," Mariano says. "He taught me about mouthpiece position and making a larger chamber of the mouth. He helped me so much. He was everything. I owe him."

Mariano, who has released more than 30 albums as a leader, also took a turn at inspiring students of his own, teaching at Berklee for periods in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s before moving to Europe in 1975. That year was the last time Mariano played in the Boston area until his recent concerts at Regattabar, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last month, before hundreds of fans. About 30 more people were in attendance in Joe Viola's living room when Mariano gave his last performance before leaving town again.

Mariano's improvised tribute came a few years after 18 former students of Joe's returned to Berklee to honor him in a concert at the Berklee Performance Center in April 1997. Burton, Cole, Harrison, Javon Jackson, Pierce, and Jane Ira Bloom were among those paying tribute to Viola that night. Artists gave peformances that ranged from free-wheeling jam sessions to sensitive ballads.

Though slowed in recent years by Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, Joe retains his fine ear and, obviously, is always happy to hear from former students. Please read an article about Joe from Berklee Today and a biography from the Joe Viola Tribute Concert program.