October 5, 2008

He Played with the "King of Jazz"

A storied career came to an end yesterday with word that woodwind phenom Al Gallodoro passed on October 4, 2008, at the age of 95.

What I first remember about Al from our two interviews was his attention to detail. When we first met and I had to write his name down, he emphatically articulated that it was Gall-O-Do-Ro — only one A up front, then three O’s. He wanted to make sure that his name wasn’t misspelled. I think he gave that attention to detail to everything in his life, and especially his musicianship.

Al was born on June 20, 1913, and started playing in Vaudeville venues in New Orleans at the age of 13. He moved swiftly into the world of popular music, big band swing, and ultimately found a place with the “King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman. We may argue about whether Paul Whiteman deserved that moniker, but he certainly was an important figure in the early twentieth century music, in both the popular and classical genres. In fact it was his group that premiered George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Al was fond of saying that he played the clarinet lead, the signature ascending slide at the beginning of “Rhapsody in Blue,” some ten thousand times.

It was my pleasure to interview Al twice, in 1995 and 2005. During our 2005 interview, Al recalled seeing Paul Whiteman for the first time:
Al: I have to tell you this story. It must have been early 1928. See I moved to New Orleans from Pensacola, Florida in October of ’27. It could have been late ’27 or early ’28 the St. Charles Theater on St. Charles Street — there’s an Avenue and a Street — The Paul Whiteman Band was coming through. And God I’m only about 15 years old, or 15-1/2 years old. And I waited outside. And who gets out of a cab? The Dapper Dan Paul Whiteman, dressed with the afternoon clothes and striped pants and all. I’m looking — I was too bashful to say anything. I finally went in the theater and Frankie Trumbauer was with the band, Bix Beiderbecke was with the band, Chester Hazlett was lead alto, Charlie Margulis. And anyway I just marveled at it. But what I want to say is back then, let’s say 1928, who ever thought that in 1936 I would become the lead alto man in New York with Paul Whiteman? This was something. It was unbelievable.

Al proceeded to give me a first-hand account of the early years of jazz from his authoritative perspective. One couldn’t help but be enthralled by his wealth of musical experiences and stories, and his obvious pride in his technical mastery of multiple instruments. Al was called a “triple threat” because he could play bass clarinet, alto saxophone and clarinet, all with an incredible amount of virtuosity. Most people aren’t aware that in the early part of the century the saxophone enjoyed attention from a number of composers who wrote what I would call semi-classical music. The thing that held it all together as a genre was the extreme technique required to play this music — double and triple tonguing and extremely fast sections balanced with lyrical passages. It all required virtuosic technique and high musicianship. Al was the master of this music.

I was pleased to have the opportunity a year ago to book Al for two concerts in a series I was promoting in public libraries near Utica, New York. Al was fortunate to have an accompanist and manager named JoAnn Chmielowski, who made it her business to assure that Al was not forgotten: indeed, that Al’s name and legacy would be exposed in as many venues as possible during his ninth decade. I couldn’t think of a better person than Al to kick off a long series of library concerts, and he lived up to my expectations. Even though he was stooped and slow at the age of 94, he brought a certain aura and charisma with him. His desire to keep playing helped him find ways to continue. His hands had developed debilitating arthritis, so much so that he had to have his clarinet keys covered with pads because his fingers no longer had the strength to cover the holes on their own. Still he managed to enthrall an audience who could scarcely believe that a man in his nineties was playing with the vigor and technical mastery he displayed at those two concerts back in April of 2007.

Only the people in the first row could actually see Al perform, as he sat in a chair hunched over behind his music stand in his captain’s cap, lifting his head in between songs to deliver a wry comment about his age, but still giving us the impression that he was a man with whom you did not mess. If you look at the pictures of Al from the late 1920’s, and then a picture of him in the year 2005, you can get a sense of a career like few others. Al was able to bring spontaneity of jazz to his classical playing and the preciseness and dedication to the composers’ wishes to his jazz music. He could exist in both worlds and was a man who paid such attention to detail that he often times would write out the passages he had improvised, only the ones that worked best. In effect they became his own compositions originated on the fly but which satisfied all his musical requirements, so they were worthy of repeatedly being played.

I recall reading Gene Lees’ book Cats of Any Color which included a surprising but now understandable quote from noted composer and saxophonist Benny Golson who said “Al Gallodoro was probably the best I ever heard. The guy was unreal. He must have been from Mars.” If so, it must be that people from Mars live long and productive lives.

Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Al was involved in music. His last gig was on September 20, 2008 in Corning, New York, and he had dates on the calendar for this month and next. As is the case with many jazz musicians, retirement was not in his vocabulary. Deepest sympathies are extended to Al’s grandson Kevin Wood, to JoAnn Chmielowski, and to the other members of Al’s family.

Click on the title of this post, — He Played with the "King of Jazz" — to go to Al's web site.