John La Porta

Jazz clarinettist and saxophonist with illustrious bands including Woody Herman's First Herd
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The Independent Online

It is odd that John La Porta counted Bill Harris and Charlie Mingus as his close friends and musical associates. Strange because Harris and Mingus were two of the most passionate musicians in jazz, whilst La Porta was one of the most calculating and bloodless. However, his orthodox brilliance would have left Harris and Mingus standing.



John Daniel La Porta, clarinettist and saxophonist, bandleader and teacher: born Philadelphia 1 April 1920; married (one son, three daughters); died Sarasota, Florida 12 May 2004.



It is odd that John La Porta counted Bill Harris and Charlie Mingus as his close friends and musical associates. Strange because Harris and Mingus were two of the most passionate musicians in jazz, whilst La Porta was one of the most calculating and bloodless. However, his orthodox brilliance would have left Harris and Mingus standing.

In his autobiography Playing It By Ear (2002), La Porta devotes 25 pages to a list of his jazz and chamber compositions. His life was intensely packed with musical activity and he was in many of the right places at the right times, alongside Woody Herman, Lennie Tristano, Mingus, Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Eminent though the settings were, it is however unlikely that the vignettes La Porta contributed to any of these scenes will be long remembered.

Facing in the other direction, he struck symphonic music a glancing blow by playing at one time or another under Igor Stravinsky, Gunther Schuller, Leopold Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein.

It is not until the uncomfortable reading in La Porta's autobiography that one recalls the desperate horror of poverty in the New York of the Twenties. As he overcame extreme adversity, he began to study the clarinet when he was nine, albeit with "a teacher who very successfully taught me all the wrong things".

Correct training followed when he enrolled at the Mastbaum School in Philadelphia, where the clarinettist Buddy De Franco was a fellow pupil. La Porta studied with orchestral players and at the same time followed up his interest in jazz via the music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. He also took up the saxophones.

He joined Bob Chester's band in 1942 where he worked alongside Bill Harris, Boots Mussulli and Herbie Steward, all of them on the verge of making their names in jazz. La Porta stayed for two years, whereupon he moved on to Woody Herman's sensational First Herd, where Harris was already established as one of the great soloists. In contrast La Porta, who played second alto sax, had a most minor role in that hugely successful band. "I was really miserable," he said. "Especially with the band blowing so much. I really wanted to play."

During 1946 Alexis Alieff, Stravinsky's protégé, went out on the road with the Herman band to tutor it in playing Stravinsky's "Ebony Concerto", written especially for Herman, and La Porta and Herman's pianist Ralph Burns took the opportunity to become Alieff's students.

Leaving Herman in 1946 La Porta settled in New York and studied with the eccentric and gifted pianist Lennie Tristano. He appeared playing solo clarinet on some of Tristano's recordings and on radio broadcasts with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Max Roach. Recordings from the time show him to have acquitted himself well. He was well enough liked to win a place in the Metronome All-Stars, a recording group made up of poll-winning soloists, in 1951.

In that year he began playing for Charlie Mingus and appeared on some of Mingus's records. In 1953 the two men joined in founding the Jazz Composers Workshop and La Porta was to play on and off with Mingus for seven years.

He studied at the Manhattan School of Music, achieving his Master's Degree in 1957, whereupon he remained at the college as a teacher. This opened up the most satisfying aspect of his musical life, and he became renowned and much loved by all his many students. From 1959 to 1985 he taught at the Berklee College of Music where he played in a faculty saxophone quartet. He also played in the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra, a band largely made up from the best students in the college. During this period he wrote 15 instructional guides to playing and composing.

La Porta continued to record, often under his own name, and above all to compose. Oddly, the hottest playing of his career was done on his own record label in 2002. The album was called I Remember Woody and featured the by-now-retired La Porta copying Herman's clarinet-playing, backed by a quartet of his friends.

Steve Voce

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