Berklee Today

The Saxophone Cornerstone


Many musicians will tell you they have played gigs for peanuts, but Joe Viola's first professional job backin 1933 literally yielded a bag of peanuts for his pay. An inauspicious debut for a 13-year-old Massachusetts youth who would later be regarded as a master saxophonist and teacher by two generations of Berklee woodwind players.

Joe has been associated with Berklee for 49 of its 50-year history, and still teaches three days each week. Though he now enjoys emeritus status, for years he held the busy position of Woodwind Department chair, and through private lessons, theory classes, and directing ensembles, he was a guide to hundreds of musicians ranging from Quincy Jones '52 to Antonio Hart '91.

In presenting Berklee's President's Award to Joe in 1994, President Lee Eliot Berk characterized Joe as "one of the cornerstones upon which the college's reputation for excellence has been built," and cited his achievements in teaching and publishing as being "intrinsic to the development of instruction at Berklee."

Many years before he came to Berklee Joe began taking lessons from his older brother on a $25 alto saxophone bought at a pawnshop and on clarinet. He began playing ballroom dances and functions in the mid-'30s in a band with two of his brothers. After graduating from high school, he took his first road gig. That band dissolved in California but Joe stayed on working as lead alto player with the Ben Pollack Band. Within a year Joe was back on the East Coast and ultimately settled in New York around 1939.

"New York was the place to go in those days," remembers Joe. "After you got proficient on your instrument, the next step was to go to New York. There was no problem getting work there—if you could play you would work. You had a choice of working in town or going on the road, it just depended on what band you wanted to play with. I went on the road with Red Norvo and other groups but also did a lot of work in town."

Joe earned an enviable reputation in New York for his jazz clarinet and lead alto playing during the swing era. By the '40s, the country was in the middle of a war in Europe and the Pacific. Joe's New York days were cut short when he was drafted. He was stationed at Camp Croft in South Carolina where he played in the Army band for about three years. Musical duties kept him stateside until the end of his hitch. He vividly remembers hearing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie for the first time when, as members of the Billie Eckstine Band, they performed at his base.

"We had been steeped in the Army band music," says Joe, "and in came this band—it was wonderful. This was the beginning of bebop. The music didn't sound strange to me harmonically or otherwise; I could hear where it was going. The speed was the thing. After that, we all wanted to know more about bebop and try to play it too.

"While I was in the service, I had heard and read about the Schillinger method of composition, but was unable to do anything about getting instruction then," remembers Joe. (Music theorist and composer Joseph Schillinger's notable students included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Lawrence Berk, and George Gershwin. His method of composition gained acclaim for being the basis of Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and his variations on "I Got Rhythm.")

After his discharge from the army, Joe returned to Boston and went to Lawrence Berk's studio on Massachusetts Avenue in the spring of 1946 to study the Schillinger method. At the same time, he began studying oboe with Fernand Gillet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Joe deliberated on whether to return to New York, Lawrence Berk offered him a job teaching at his newly opened school, the Schillinger House, on Newbury Street, and Joe took the offer. His first responsibilities involved teaching saxophone, clarinet, and flute, and leading a majority of the ensembles.

As the school grew, ultimately becoming Berklee College of Music, Joe could see clearly the educational needs of his saxophone students. He penned a three-volume method in the '60s titled The Technique of the Saxophone, and an additional book in 1982, Creative Reading Studies. Volume II of his method, which focuses on arpeggios and chord scales, proved to be so universally applicable that it has been transposed and published for trumpet, vibes, trombone, flute, electric bass, and violin. It has also been translated into Japanese, Italian, and German.

At the same time, Joe was noted around Boston as a top performer who doubled on all saxophones, flute, oboe, and English horn, and was comfortable playing in jazz and classical situations. He kept a busy and varied performing schedule playing behind artists like Lena Horn, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett. He also played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, and pit orchestras at Boston's Schubert, and Colonial theaters.

In the latter part of the '60s, Joe formed the Berklee College Saxophone Quartet together with John LaPorta, Harry Drabkin, and Gary Anderson. Their concert programs of jazz and classical selections showcased their high-caliber musicianship, impressing critics as they represented Berklee to audiences around the country. In 1972, the quartet released an album featuring many works by Berklee faculty composers.

Joe has seen many changes at the college and in all aspects of music making over the past five decades.

"I remember back in the 284 Newbury Street building when we worked with a wire recorder—they didn't have a tape recorder then," he states. "To make a recording studio, they broke down a wall of a rehearsal room and put in a plate glass window. The band was on one side, and in the middle of the other room was this little wire recorder. Seeing the kind of recording equipment that is in the Berklee studios now makes that seem a little ridiculous."

It is not unusual for Joe to hear from students he taught as long as 30 years ago. He forged lasting bonds with hundreds of them through his genuine interest in their development.

Bill Pierce '73, a former Viola student, says, "There is nothing like studying with a master—Joe is a virtuoso player and teacher. He can point out the flaws in your technique just by listening, and then give a logical approach for fixing them. His books can help players of any level. His Creative Reading Studies is so hard, even the most advanced player will have to really study it. My experience with him was very positive. Joe teaches his students how to become the best players they can be."

"I've always tried to equip my students to play all kinds of music," Joe says. "I stress all aspects—developing a good tone, reading, doubling, improvising. I teach that doubling is really important for a woodwind player. If you can't play those instruments, you just won't work."

As saxophone styles have evolved over the past 49 years, Joe has kept up. He lists a number of contemporary players he admires. He has also never lost any of his enthusiasm for working with new students.

"Some of these young players frighten me—they are just marvelous," he states. "I've always been very interested in what the young people are doing—I think that is one of the things that has kept me around here for so long."


Mark Small is the editor of Berklee today. This article originally appeared in the Fall 1995 edition of the magazine.