The Troy Street Observer

June 25, 1920: Happy Birthday to Joe Viola, Master of Reeds

Cover of Jazz in the Classroom
Six Pieces for Eight Reeds and Joe Viola plays ’em all

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.

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