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Joe Lovano Celebrates Deep Roots In Cleveland Jazz Scene

Saxophonist Joe Lovano has headlined festivals around the world, been featured on the cover of “DownBeat” magazine and frequently landed at the top of critics’ polls as one of jazz’s finest musicians.

The Grammy Award-winner credits much of that success to what he learned honing his skills as a young musician in the early to mid-1970s in his hometown of Cleveland.

“My roots in Cleveland were very special and exciting. I feed off of that energy every time I play my horn. The jazz scene in Cleveland in which I grew up was a springboard to my whole career,” Lovano said.

During those formative years, one of Lovano’s main classrooms was the Smiling Dog Saloon. The long-closed club at West 25th Street and Woodbridge Avenue was a jazz hotspot in the 1970s. National musicians ranging from saxophonist Sonny Stitt to vibraphonist Milt Jackson to the band Weather Report would play there, often for weeklong stays. Local groups, often including a young Lovano, would perform as the opening act.

“That period between 1970 and 1975, where I was playing opposite a lot of groups as well as sitting in and playing with (local musicians) Ernie Krivda, Bill DeArango, Val Kent and Bill Dobbins, the energy there and the freeness of expression came through, especially with DeArango,” Lovano said.


[Joe Lovano-photo: Don Sebian]

Performing at the Smiling Dog not only provided Lovano a chance to be on the bandstand with more experienced players, but it opened the door for possibilities outside of Cleveland.

“I played baritone saxophone with (organist) Brother Jack McDuff there, along with (Cleveland) alto saxophonist Willie Smith. Subsequently, I went on tour with McDuff and his band “The Heatin’ System.” When I joined (organist) Dr. Lonnie Smith, I had been recommended to him by folks at the Smiling Dog,” Lovano said.

When the saxophonist was in Cleveland last December to celebrate the holidays with his family, he took advantage of an offer from the NPR program “Jazz Night In America” to record two nights of concerts at the Bop Stop. Those performances allowed Lovano to achieve a goal of celebrating the jazz scene that has meant so much to him.

“I wanted to document something in Cleveland featuring musicians from my life. It was really great to put something together that spanned five generation of musicians,” Lovano said.


[Bob Ferrazza (gt) Bobby Selvaggio (alto) Joe Lovano (tenor)-photo: Don Sebian]

The two nights featured 16 Northeast Ohio musicians performing original works by Lovano as well as classic tunes and a few jam session favorites. The players ranged from organist Eddie Baccus - who played in bands led by Lovano’s father, saxophonist Tony “Big T” Lovano - to younger players, including bassist Aidan Plank and pianist Anthony Fuoco.

For Lovano, the Bop Stop, a club founded in 1991 by his friend and fellow musician vibraphonist Ron Busch and now operated by The Music Settlement, was the perfect setting for these performances celebrating Cleveland’s rich jazz legacy.

“The way the venue is set up, it’s a great stage to address an audience. Also the meaning of the club, including my relationship with Ron and that crowd (of musicians who performed at the Bop Stop), including Ernie Krivda and (trumpeter) Kenny Davis. Ernie and Kenny weren’t able to participate, but their presence was felt,” Lovano said.

Listen for music from Joe Lovano’s Bop Stop performances on “Jazz Night in America” Saturday at 8 p.m. on 90.3 WCPN.

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