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Well-Respected Woodwind Teacherby Rob Hayes
Copyright © 2001 Rob Hayes
Joseph E. Viola, the Founding Chair of the Berklee College of Music Woodwind Department, was a master woodwind player, and teacher of many of the most significant saxophonists in jazz.
Mr. Viola was born and grew up in Malden, where he began his musical career with lessons from his brother Tony, one of two older brothers who were active musicians in the Boston area. At 13, Mr. Viola had been playing saxophone for about a year when his brother first brought him along to play on a job.
Music quickly became his occupation. At age 18, fresh out of high school, Mr. Viola was earning his living playing alto sax. A band he was traveling with soon broke up, stranding him in California. But the teenage saxophonist rapidly found both a new job, with bandleader Ben Pollack, and a new teacher, Benny Kanter, a former mainstay of one of Benny Goodman's original orchestras.
After a year with Pollack's band, Mr. Viola returned to Boston for six months, and moved to New York, where he played for four years, earning an enviable reputation. With the onset of World War II, he spent the next four years in the Army, playing in an Army band and "performing medic duties."
At war's end he began studying the Schillinger method of composition with Berklee founder Lawrence Berk in a small studio off Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. He also began to take oboe lessons with Fernand Gillet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "Fernand really captured my imagination. He was the kind of teacher that would always play with you and he would demonstrate something and talk about it and notate it in detail on paper. Analyze every move you made." His oboe studies with Gillet continued for five years.
Shortly after it began, Lawrence Berk asked Mr. Viola to join him in his new school on Newbury Street in Boston. For most of the schools first decade and more, Viola taught theory, composition, saxophone, clarinet, flute, and the bulk of the ensembles. Some of the very talented young musicians in those groups included Herb Pomeroy, Ray Santisi, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Charlie Mariano, Dick Nash, Sadao Watanabe, and Quincy Jones. In later years, his students included Joe Lovano, Walter Beasley, Jerry Bergonzi, Seamus Blake, and Antonio Hart.
While an expert and versatile teacher, he remained an enthusiastic student as well. In 1955 - decades before "professional development" or "sabbatical" became part of any Berklee teacher's agreement - Mr. Viola went to France to study with saxophonist Marcel Mule, whose playing had impressed him. They became lifelong friends.
Viola is the author of several, seminal music method books. The jazz methods contained in the three volumes titled The Technique of the Saxophone, first published during the 1960s, remain a vital part of Berklee's curriculum. Volume Two, devoted to chord studies, has been adapted for bass, brass, flute, guitar, vibes, and violin and translated into German, Italian, and Japanese. His Creative Reading Studies, first published in 1982, is a mainstay for even the most advanced professional musicians.
As the school grew into a full-fledged Berklee College of Music, with departments and divisions, Mr. Viola became the first woodwind department chair and designed the standards which have shaped countless, top-flight musical careers. He raised no stylistic barriers. "I've always tried to equip my students to play all kinds of music," he said.
Mr. Viola himself was always well-equipped and in demand, from gigs with Frank Sinatra and Lena Horne to regular performances with the Shubert and Colonial theater orchestras, the Boston Pops, and the BSO. He also founded the Berklee College Saxophone Quartet with John LaPorta, Harry Drabkin, and Gary Anderson and led that group to notable success.
When Mr. Viola retired as Chair of the Woodwind Department in 1985, the trustees of the college created a named scholarship endowment fund in his honor. He was named Chair Emeritus of the Woodwind Department and continued teaching until 1996.
In 1997, his Berklee colleagues created a tribute concert in his honor, which featured some of his most famous students, including Jane Ira Bloom, Richie Cole, Donald Harrison, Javon Jackson, Tommy Smith, and Bill Pierce. Colleagues and students came from the world over to thank Mr. Viola for the impact he has made on their professional careers and personal lives.
Perhaps the ultimate reason for their devotion is best understood in a few words from Mr. Viola himself: "I really enjoy teaching and I take a sincere interest in my students. To me that's my job! I'm very concerned with what they do as a player, I really am!". In March of this year, Mr. Viola received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Massachusetts Music Educators Assn., in recognition of his unique and enduring contributions to music education.
Mr. Viola leaves his wife, Alice (Botto); his sister, Lillian Centracchio of Stoneham; son Robert, and daughter Paula Elaine; and three grandchildren.
Those wishing to send condolences to the family may do so at this address: 17 Sunrise Avenue, Stoneham, MA 02180.
Rob Hayes is director of the publicity department at Berklee College