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Reedman, composer, arranger, educatorby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins
John LaPorta, a beloved music educator and veteran of Woody Herman's First Herd and Charles Mingus' cool period, died from complications of a stroke on May 12, 2004, in Sarasota, Florida. He was 84 years old.
LaPorta showed great promise as a reedman, particularly for his skills as a bebop and Third Stream clarinetist, but chose to sidestep into the educator's chair. One of his first professional gigs was with Bob Chester's swing band, beginning in 1942. In '44 he joined the Herman aggregation and remained for two years, making his own imprint on what became a classic big-band sound. His taste and technique were impeccable on alto and tenor saxes and clarinet.
LaPorta moved to New York City in 1946 and was hired by pianist Lennie Tristano at the nascence of the cool-jazz movement. His career in music education began in '48 at Brooklyn's Parkway Music Institute. He also gave private instruction as he pursued his M.A. at the Manhattan School of Music. The list of artists with whom he worked was extensive: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Gunther Schuller, Herb Pomeroy, Billy Eckstine, Kenny Clarke, Lester Young, Max Roach, Hank Mobley, Bill Evans, Buddy Rich, Bill Harris, Fats Navarro, Oscar Pettiford, Helen Merrill, Neal Hefti, Johnny Mathis, and the big band Orange Then Blue. He was also impressive as a classical soloist, performing under Bernstein, Stravinsky, Stokowski and the Boston Pops.
LaPorta played with Charles Mingus for several years until the mid-1950s, appearing on classic Chazz sets like Jazzical Moods and Jazz Composers Workshop (both in 1954). The partnership was rewarding, and LaPorta made his first album as a leader for Mingus' Debut label in '54. The two men finally parted ways when Mingus began moving away from cool and Third Stream jazz into a hard-bop mode. The reedman cut three albums for Fantasy in the mid-50s and led his own group at the 1958 Newport festival.
Master's degree in hand, LaPorta joined the faculty of Berklee School of Music in 1963 and remained there for over thirty years until he retired to Florida. He wrote fifteen books on music education and over two hundred compositions, made some Music Minus One records, and assisted with Stan Kenton's jazz camps. In 1985 he returned to the recording studio to wax Alone Together (Powerhouse). His last album was Life Cycle (1999, Civil Defense).
In Florida LaPorta kept active, directing a high school band, performing with the Sarasota Jazz Club, and lecturing in the "Inside Jazz" program. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from IAJE and the Satchmo Award from the Sarasota Jazz Club. His autobiography, Playing It By Ear, was published by Cadence Jazz Books. LaPorta had been asked to participate in a Tristano retrospective in L.A. later this year and had planned to donate his archives to the American Jazz Museum.
John LaPorta is survived by his wife, Ginny, three daughters, one son and several grandchildren. Donations may be made to the John LaPorta Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 20223, Sarasota, FL 34276.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.