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UW-Green Bay’s Jazz Fest Swings Back With Legend Lovano

The long-running jazz festival returns to the Weidner Center Saturday, March 26, headlined by storied saxophonist

By Matty Day

Saxophonist Joe Lovano hit the stage at the Weidner Center as the featured performer at Jazz Fest.
Saxophonist Joe Lovano to hit the stage at the Weidner Center as the featured performer at Jazz Fest.

Calling all cats, kittens and felines of any kind: your highly anticipated jazz fix will soon be divvied out, faster than you can say “Daddy-O.”

After last year’s virtual version, the coolest concert in town—that’s UWGB’s Jazz Fest, dig?—returns to the Weidner Center for its 52nd annual jam.

The festival bebops back into action headlined by a man on sax who’s cut wax for the baddest (translation: best) jazz label of them all, Blue Note Records.

The Lowdown on Lovano

“Joe Lovano is a living legend among saxophonists,” said Dr. Adam Gaines, Associate Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at UWGB. “He is often mentioned in the same breath as people like Wayne Shorter, as being someone who bridges the many decades and styles of jazz from the 1960s to now.”

Born in 1952, Joseph Salvatore Lovano was steeped in music from the start.

“My whole family in Cleveland had a musical life, you know,” Lovano said in a phone call from his New York home. “That was all a springboard for everything.”

Lovano said it was his father, tenor saxophonist Tony “Big T” Lovano, who influenced his appreciation of jazz.

“My dad, he developed in the jazz world. That was the music of the day,” said Lovano. “After comin’ home from the service, late ‘40s, you know, my dad was a player. And he integrated himself into the scene in Cleveland.”

Lovano said he was raised to a soundtrack of his father’s records—Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis—before he took up the saxophone around age five, with his father’s great encouragement.

“I studied with my dad. He was givin’ me lessons all the time. We didn’t say, ‘Okay, on Tuesdays we’re doing lessons.’ [It was] real informal,” said Lovano. “He would listen to me practice, and he would come and make comments, leave the room, and then hear what I would do with it.”

His father taught other students, too, many of whom were adults, Lovano said, yet he would sit in just the same.

“Sometimes I would join in the other lessons with the other students who didn’t have the same time to practice like I did. So he’d give us all a lesson, with three other people, you know, and I would practice,” said Lovano. “They would come back, a week or two later and be strugglin’ with everything that he would show them, and I would play right through it. And [Big T] would say, ‘Look, Joey can do it—Joey can play that! And he’s not lookin’ at the music; he memorized it!’”

Lovano’s father taught him the fundamentals of the horn, he said, as well as how to improvise, turning scales into chords and feeling the voicings and arpeggios.

“I wasn’t just studying the saxophone; he was teaching me about music,” Lovano said. “That was all part of my development growin’ up. And listenin’ to [John] Coltrane, and to Sonny Rollins, Gene Ammons and ‘Bird’ [Charlie Parker].”

Lovano said his early start and the work ethic his father instilled in him led to great confidence in his teens.

“So by the time I’m 15, 16 years old, I’m developing a repertoire, and startin’ to sit in with my dad’s groups—really strong, beautiful players that became my mentors through the years,” Lovano said.

This invaluable experience would change the course of Lovano’s life, he said, as his money from gigs added up.

“I made a little bread, and then I paid my tuition to go to Berklee (College of Music) when I graduated high school in 1971,” Lovano said. “That felt really good that I was able to do that.”

A look inside the Weidner Center’s auditorium.

From Berklee to Blue Note

Lovano said his experience at Berklee would take his playing to new places, in every sense.

“A lot of people I play with today, man, they were all there in 1971-2. We were all playin’ together at that time, and then all of us kind of moved to New York in 1975-6,” said Lovano. “Been an ongoing and beautiful journey.”

In New York, Lovano said, his journey entailed extensive gigging.

“We had a week off in summer and a week off at Christmas,” said Lovano. “That’s it. Constant itinerary.”

His burgeoning talent and his reliability earned him some incredible opportunities, Lovano said.

“That’s how things happen in the jazz world especially,” said Lovano. “You have relationships with people, and if the right moment happens, you know, things happen.”

One such happening, was Lovano’s tenure with Woody Herman’s jazz orchestra, which, Lovano said, included concerts playing with jazz greats such as Tony Bennett, Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughn and Chet Baker.

Lovano steadily rose in prominence, achieving international recognition and releasing several albums through European labels in the 1980s, he said.

His ascent would culminate with what could be considered a crowning achievement in the jazz world: a record deal with Blue Note Records, the classic label once home to luminaries like Jimmy Smith, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, and the aforementioned Shorter, Monk and Davis.

“Playing with John Scofield around 1989, that was what led to my relationship with Blue Note. It was amazing!” said Lovano. “It was so beautiful. The legacy of Blue Note Records—I grew up learnin’ the music and studying all those players.”

Lovano released a total of 25 albums with Blue Note Records between 1991 and 2015. Along this prolific run he earned 14 Grammy nominations, ultimately winning the award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble for his 2000 album, 52nd Street Themes. This impressive stretch also saw him named Down Beat magazine’s Jazz Artist of the Year—twice—as well as nominations for Musician of the Year, Improviser of the Year and Best Tenor Saxophonist in the 1998 New York Jazz Awards.

Jamming with Jazz Royalty

As manager of Jazz Fest, Gaines said landing Lovano as this year’s featured performer was “serendipity.”

“I was talking with my friend Bob Kramer, who is a professor at St. Norbert, about some jazz stuff and he mentioned that his colleague, Mike Lovano, was cousin to Joe,” Gaines said. “After picking my jaw off the floor, knowing both Joe’s music and reputation, I asked for an introduction to Mike, who then got me in touch with Joe.”

For his Jazz Fest performance, Lovano will be backed by the Green Bay Jazz Orchestra, a non-profit group Gaines founded in 2016. Gaines said the 17-piece band features top players from the area, many of whom teach at local universities and schools.

Teachers and students alike will look to Lovano for wisdom and leadership at Jazz Fest, and not without qualification: Lovano has held the Gary Burton Chair in Jazz Performance at Berklee since 2001, and also teaches with the Global Jazz Institute.

“I always tell everybody in my workshops to ‘live in the library of the sounds and spirits of the masters,’” said Lovano. “Do that, and you’re in tune with all kinds of things.”

Lovano said it’s that spirituality that keeps him in touch with his father, who passed away in 1987.

“My dad’s with me at every phrase, man,” said Lovano. “He’s hearin’ what’s happenin’.”

Why Jazz?

Lovano said he prizes the multi-generational, democratic nature of jazz, alternately requiring players to lead or be led, based in part on age.

“As you emerge, the influence that you have on the generations that follow—that’s a deep responsibility, and I’m feelin’ that all the time,” said Lovano. “The future of creative players and music is as bright as it always was.”

Lovano said that for him, the world of music is a blessing that makes us all better people.

“The essence of jazz is bein’ yourself and tellin’ your story—not tryin’ to tell somebody else’s story. That’s what I learned listenin’ to Miles, and Coltrane,” said Lovano. “Everybody that tries to copy [somebody], they aren’t sayin’ anything. I mean, they may play with a real virtuosic approach, but, you know, they’re not really sayin’ somethin’ with deep meaning from themselves, from their heart and soul.”

And what would Lovano say to someone who doesn’t “get” jazz?

“Well, I think you better give it another chance, man,” Lovano said. “I think you better start openin’ up the window, man, and lettin’ it in, ‘cause it’s gonna make your whole life better.”

Whether you’re an aficionado or haven’t yet opened up that window, 7:30 p.m. Saturday night at the Weidner is a perfect opportunity for giving jazz a chance, man.

“This gig I’m gonna do in Green Bay, I haven’t done somethin’ like this in a little while, you know, with the pandemic and everything,” said Lovano. “I’m really lookin’ forward to comin’ out and playin’ with the band. We’re gonna make it happen!”

Matty Day is a freelance writer and musician, performing with Cory Chisel, Muddy Udders, the Priggs, J-Council and more. Contact Matty via email at [email protected], on Twitter @pollutedmindset or on his website matthewtday.com.

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