May-15th-2004, 08:11 AM
John LaPorta - R.I.P.
John Daniel LaPorta, at 84, noted jazz composer, teacher
By Shari Rudavsky, Globe Correspondent *|* May 15, 2004
The very notion of improvisation in music defies lessons. But John Daniel LaPorta, a renowned jazz performer and composer, was a master at the seemingly contradictory skill of teaching students how to sound spontaneous.
For more than 35 years Mr. LaPorta -- who died Wednesday in Sarasota, Fla., at the age of 84, several months after suffering a stroke -- transformed countless students at the Berklee College of Music into jazz musicians.
"His great gift was dealing with students who have the intuition for the music but not yet the craft or background," said Larry Monroe, a student of Mr. LaPorta's and now the school's associate vice president for international programs.
Not only can Mr. LaPorta's notes be heard on more than 30 CD-ROMs and recordings, but his words can also be read in 15 music education texts in which he attempts to impart his secrets to others.
In the college's history book, "Berklee: the First Fifty Years," Mr. LaPorta explains his pedagogical approach.
"I think as a teacher I should be concerned about hidden talents, not obvious ones," he said. "We're supposed to help people grow and become whatever they can."
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Mr. LaPorta studied classical clarinet as a child at the behest of his father, a barber and frustrated musician. Mr. LaPorta left high school to attend music school.
Gigs with a variety of bands soon followed. One night he played a Cincinnati ballroom with the Bob Chester Orchestra and saw a young girl in the audience. He jumped off the bandstand and asked her to dance.
Shortly thereafter Mr. LaPorta and Virginia (Trisler) began a marriage of 59 years.
From 1944 to 1946 he toured with the Woody Herman Orchestra before settling down to teach woodwinds, composition, and improvisation in New York.
"What happened was we started having children," said his wife, explaining how his days on the road ended.
"When you've got a family, you need quite a bit of income."
Mr. LaPorta earned his GED and returned to school himself, earning a bachelor's in 1956 and a master's in 1957 from the Manhattan School of Music.
He continued to play, appearing and recording with jazz legends like Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis.
Berklee recruited him in 1962. Often dressed in a conservative suit, Mr. LaPorta looked more like a kindly old professor from an ivy-covered campus than a beatnik jazz musician in a nightclub, former students said.
Mr. LaPorta taught at the school full time until 1985, when he retired to Sarasota. He would return every year to teach summer courses.
A founding member of the International Association of Jazz Educators, this year Mr. LaPorta won the Satchmo Award for outstanding contributions to jazz, an honor that in the past has gone to legends Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Lionel Hampton.
While Mr. LaPorta played with his share of the great musicians of the 20th century, including Igor Stravinsky and Dizzy Gillespie, he did not bask in his glory days.
"John was very much rooted in the present. For him, art was a universal subject. It had no particular era," said Ken Pullig, chairman of jazz composition at Berklee.
Nor need the music belong to a particular genre, others said.
"John didn't care much about labels," Monroe said. "He believed there's only two kinds of music: good and bad."
Mr. LaPorta allowed himself to play only the first category, Monroe added.
"He believed you played your best every time," he said, "because someone was always listening."
In addition to his wife, Mr. LaPorta leaves his children, Karen Burnham of Evans, Ga., Donna Marks of Newburyport, Jeanette McCarthy of Winchester, and John LaPorta Jr. of Beverly; his brother, Salvatore of Tamarac, Fla., and sister, Rose Vissichelli of Boynton Beach, Fla.; and five grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held today at 8:45 a.m. in the St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Sarasota, Fla. A memorial concert is planned for the future.
Mr. LaPorta will be cremated.*
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company