Slice of Life

Former director of jazz studies at VPA details life as musician and teacher

Logan Reidsma | Photo Editor

When Riposo was a student at Syracuse University, he would do his homework in between sets performing at restaurants.

It can be difficult to break down a musician’s mind, where words become sounds, colors become feelings and arms become instruments.

But when Joe Riposo plays his saxophone, all those abstract ideas make sense. The easiest way to understand is to listen.

“Music’s not a prescription, it’s learning to play how you feel,” Riposo said. He’s been told that when he plays — eyes closed and confident — whatever instrument it is, it becomes an extension of him.

For Riposo, 82, music might as well be his first language. His list of careers and accomplishments can be arranged much like the tracklist of a jazz album: Track one being chief instructor of the United States Army School of Music in the 1950s, all the way down to track eight, when he was the director of jazz studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts for nearly 28 years.

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Logan Reidsma | Photo Editor

 

But some tracks are hidden. Riposo won’t readily say that he’s played with such jazz legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Natalie and Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett, among others. He won’t tell you that he’s been honored by the New York State Senate for his lifetime achievements as a musician and a teacher. He said he doesn’t like to “drop names.”

What he will say is how he came to love jazz, and continues to today.

“I wanted to be a classical clarinetist because I thought my father would appreciate that more, it might be more respectable,” Riposo said. That is, until he heard a Swedish jazz clarinetist. “When I heard him play, I said ‘Wow.’ And from that moment on, I started playing jazz.”

He still plays concerts in Washington D.C. and Tennessee. On the first Wednesday of every month at the Syracuse Suds Factory in Armory Square, he performs in his hometown.

The Suds Factory isn’t too far from where Riposo played his first shows. As a 16-year-old, he would make the rounds in Syracuse’s gin mills, biergartens and jazz clubs — a vibrant scene that is now a distant memory, Riposo said.

He would eagerly walk up to the stage, met by adults playing piano, drums and saxophones, carrying the clarinet his older brother had gifted him. He heard him playing it in his room — the first time a 10-year-old Riposo had ever picked up a clarinet — and gave it to him right then and there.

 

“Neusinha”  by Joe Riposo. The song was released in 2014

 

“He couldn’t believe it was me who was playing it,” Riposo said. “He said, ‘That’s your clarinet, kid, you keep it.’”

As Riposo went from club to club, he became exposed to the malleability of jazz music. Even if a band in the Clover Club was playing the same song as the band at Luigi’s Jazz Centre, it would sound different every time he heard it. That was what made him want to pursue jazz over classical music, he said.

“They [jazz musicians] all had their own kind of musical fingerprint, or style and that intrigued me,” Riposo said. “I thought, there’s got to be something to this.”

In the 1950s, any jazz that wasn’t classical was looked down upon, Riposo said. Perhaps it was musicians like Miles Davis, Bill Evans or John Coltrane who were so prolific in their craft but died from overdosing on drugs so young that attributed to the perception, he said.

So when he started an underground jazz band while he was a student at Syracuse University, Riposo said the dean was less than pleased. The dean told him to shut down the club or he’d lose his scholarship, he said.

For all the dean knew, the band was gone. But in the basement of SU’s student center — at that time near South Crouse Avenue and Marshall Street — they continued to play, filling students’ ears with sounds reminiscent of legendary drummer Buddy Rich, Riposo said.

“Jazz at that time became a part of me,” Riposo said, adding that throughout his time at SU, he would play in restaurants, such as the nearby Three Rivers Inn. Sometimes he would play until 3 a.m., but in between sets, he would go up to his dressing room and finish his homework.

 

“Close your eyes” from “Best of Joe Riposo.”

 

Although Riposo was still learning the fundamentals of classical jazz at SU, he felt it was necessary to get out and play. This idea would later be a major principle as he taught students in VPA.

“For me, in order to be a good teacher, you can’t teach anything you haven’t experienced,” Riposo said. “So that was my background to become a good teacher, because I had that experience.”

These skill sets — being both a teacher and a player — were what made Riposo such a valuable professor, said John Coggiola, who currently serves as VPA’s director of jazz studies. Coggiola grew to know Riposo when Coggiola was a music education professor in the late 1990’s. Riposo even named a big band jazz song after Coggiola, titled “Cool Strut.”

The two would play and teach together, up until Riposo left SU in 2013. What Coggiola said he remembers most about their relationship is a chemistry and like-mindedness that’s hard to find.

“To tell you the truth, I’ve never worked with anybody that I can do that with like I had with Joe,” Coggiola said.

And just how Riposo is as a professor who Coggiola said left lasting impressions on his students, Riposo said it was one of his mentors whose words, to this day, continue to guide him.

One day, while practicing with clarinetist and teacher Howard Simmons, Riposo said he purposely “screwed up” the keys. Simmons became so frustrated that he exasperatedly yelled at him, opened his desk drawer and pulled out his clarinet — an instrument Simmons had quit playing.

Upon hearing Simmons play, Riposo was simultaneously transfixed and confused.

“I thought, ‘Wow, what a gorgeous sound.’ But I said, ‘Dr. Simmons, how come you quit playing?’” Riposo said. “He said he quit because he didn’t want to see the other side of the mountain.”

What he meant, Riposo said, was that people only remember musicians by their last performance. For Simmons, he wanted it to quit at the peak of his career.

Seventy-two years after Riposo first picked up the clarinet, he’s still at the top of the mountain. For now, he doesn’t show any signs of coming down.

“I hope I’m going to be smart enough to realize that it’s my time to go,” Riposo said. “But so far, I feel great.”

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