June 25, 1920: Happy Birthday to Joe Viola, Master of Reeds
Joe Viola was both an exemplary educator and a superb woodwind player. He was highly respected on both counts, and his many friends remember him warmly.
Viola’s apprenticeship as a saxophonist started in his home town, the Boston suburb of Malden, with his older brother, saxophonist Tony, who took Joe on jobs while he was still in high school. Joe turned professional after graduation, and got on his first name band in 1938, when he replaced Benny Kanter (also a Bostonian) as lead alto in Ben Pollock’s band. In 1940 he moved on to Richard Himber, Red Norvo and the NBC studios. Following a wartime hitch in the U.S. Army, he returned to Boston.
In 1945 Viola studied with Lawrence Berk at Schillinger House, and Berk must have recognized the teacher in him, because he hired Viola in 1946. He taught the woodwinds, but also theory, composing, and ensembles. Later he founded the Berklee Saxophone Quartet with John LaPorta, who called Viola the best soprano saxophone player he ever heard. He was the first chairman of the Woodwind Department, and although he stepped down from that post in 1985, he continued to teach until 1996—a full 50 years at Berklee.
His students included Walter Beasley, Jerry Bergonzi, Seamus Blake, Jane Ira Bloom, Richie Cole, George Garzone, Donald Harrison, Antonio Hart, Javon Jackson, Joe Lovano, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Charlie Mariano, Branford Marsalis, Donny McCaslin, Dick Nash, Bill Pierce, Sadao Watanabe, Ernie Watts…
He was a teacher first and foremost, but Viola continued his own course of study in the forties and fifties. He studied with Fernand Gillet, the principle oboeist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for five years, and in 1955, went to France to study with Marcel Mule, the French classical saxophonist and arranger.
It paid off. In 1959, Viola recorded Joe Viola Plays Manny Albam (Berklee Records BLP 3) as part of the “Jazz in the Classroom Series.” Manny Albam was a rising star as a composer and arranger, and for Viola, he composed “Six Pieces for Eight Reeds,” very much in the French style. Viola, unaccompanied, played all eight: oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, and the four saxophones. He played each line without the benefit of hearing any of the other parts. He did indeed sound like a veritable section of Monsieur Mules.
On the album’s second side, “Sounds From the Sax Section,” Viola is joined by pianist Ray Santisi, bassist Gene Cherico, and drummer Alan Dawson, but he’s still playing four saxophone tracks on each tune.
Down Beat awarded the record five stars in its review.
So Viola could teach, and he could play, but the web abounds in tributes from former students who speak of him in terms greater than his talents as teacher or saxophonist. Viola’s secret was no secret at all: he cared about his students, he encouraged them, and he did his best to help them succeed. Read some of those tributes here (note it’s a PDF and might load slowly).