Remembering John LaPorta
Teacher, composer, and outstanding reed player John LaPorta died in Sarasota, Florida, on May 12, 2004.
John LaPorta had already lived a whole life in jazz before he arrived at Berklee in 1962. He was on Bob Chester’s big band 1942-44, and with Woody Herman’s First Herd 1944-46. In 1947 he studied and played with Lennie Tristano, and in 1953 took part in the Jazz Composers Workshop sessions with Teo Macero and Charles Mingus, who raved about his talent with the clarinet. His 1950s recordings on the Debut and Fantasy labels showcased his talents as composer, arranger, clarinetist, and saxophonist.
LaPorta was also deeply involved in classical music, performing with Stokowski and Bernstein. He was part of the third stream movement at its start in 1957, with Gunther Schuller, George Russell, and Jimmy Guiffre.
Given his background as a composer and his ability to step between the jazz and classical worlds, LaPorta was a stellar addition to a Berklee jazz faculty that already included Herb Pomeroy, Ray Santisi, Alan Dawson, and Dean Earl. At Berklee, LaPorta created and directed the Instrumental Performance Department, which was Berklee’s “reach your potential” program. Said another faculty member of LaPorta’s achievement: “John knew how to take a bunch of kids who had music in them and go forward with that. That was a breakthrough for the school. John was magnificent with lower-level kids. He could get music out of three stones and a corn cob.”
LaPorta and Joe Viola founded the Berklee Faculty Saxophone Quartet, which roamed across the musical landscape for its material. LaPorta wrote “J.V. Blues” in 1999 in Viola’s honor.
LaPorta didn’t stop playing when he joined the Berklee faculty, although his focus was local. He was part of the Jimmy Mosher–Paul Fontaine big band in the late 1960s. He organized two 1970s quintets with Dean Earl, played in Herb Pomeroy’s late ‘70s/early ‘80s big band, and worked and recorded in a duo with pianist Bob Winter. Saxophonist and former student Jimmy Derba was alongside in both the Mosher–Fontaine and Pomeroy bands; when Derba died suddenly in 1981, LaPorta composed “Jimmy D’s Soliloquy” in his honor, and later recorded it with Winter.
LaPorta retired from Berklee in 1985. He returned to the recording studio in later years, with Life Cycle in 1999, and I Remember Woody in 2002. He also published his autobiography, Playing It By Ear, in 2001.
Here are two examples of LaPorta’s music. The first is “Darn That Dream,” a vehicle for his clarinet playing, as well as Jack Reilly’s dreamy piano. The second, “Concertina for Clarinet,” shows his talent as a composer.