Billy Joel turns 70 on May 9. Mr. Joel, if you happen to be reading this, have we got a birthday present for you … nonagenarian Pat DeRosa, a wailing sax man who, after a lifetime of making music, shows no signs of slowing down.
“I’m now 97 and still playing,” confided Mr. DeRosa during a recent interview at his Montauk home, who’s not shy about sharing his age. “I began playing in Brooklyn when I was 12. I started with the saxophone I got on Dekalb Avenue and I used to take lessons in the Bowery. It was pretty rough at the time and my mother would take me in.”
These days, Mr. DeRosa lives with his daughter, Patricia DeRosa Padden, and granddaughter Nicole DeRosa Padden, who are also both musically-inclined (Patricia sings and plays piano while Nicole is a vocalist and a flute player). Together, they are The Pat DeRosa Jazz Orchestra and the trio performs frequently on the East End. Last month, they were at The Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, and on Saturday, May 11, Mr. DeRosa will sit in for a few numbers as a guest player with the Lynn Blue Band at the East Hampton Spring Street Fair. Then on June 15, Mr. DeRosa and family will play again at East Hampton Library.
Performing live is familiar territory for Mr. DeRosa. As a young man right out of high school, he worked at the Grumman factory in Bethpage where he built aircraft parts and played in the Grumman band (yes, there was such a thing). Drafted at age 19 in 1943 at the height of World War II, Mr. DeRosa spent his military service stateside playing for the enjoyment of troops who would soon be heading overseas. Other early gigs included a stint with Glenn Miller’s band and a cross country tour with the Tommy Tucker Orchestra.
“I was always in the traveling band,” said Mr. DeRosa, who in the years that followed also played with the likes of Percy Faith, Toots Thielemans and Dick Hyman. “The set up wasn’t too bad on the bus. It was exciting to see the different cities and small towns. People lived so differently.”
When the Tommy Tucker Orchestra headed west to Hollywood, so did Mr. DeRosa who subsequently appeared in several musical films alongside the likes of Errol Flynn, Lana Turner and Marlene Dietrich. He also rubbed elbows with Abbott and Costello, went to lunch with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and hung out with Andy Williams and his singing brothers.
But in the post-war years as the era of the big bands began fading to black, Mr. DeRosa left the road and enrolled at Manhattan School of Music on the G.I. Bill. There, in 1954, he earned both his bachelor’s degree in oboe and his master’s degree in music education.
When asked to weigh in on why he thinks the big bands disappeared in favor of small jazz ensembles, Mr. DeRosa said he suspected it had something to do with the cost of supporting a large number of musicians on the road.
“Maybe it was money that made it happen,” he said. “But I think maybe it was also a change of style and even television.”
Through it all, Mr. DeRosa kept on playing. Though he had a day job as a high school music teacher on Long Island, by night, he continued to perform at top Manhattan venues like the Plaza Hotel and the Waldorf Astoria. In the 1960s, after moving his young family to Huntington, Mr. DeRosa joined forces with free jazz pioneer John Coltrane, who represented the next iteration of the genre. The two met through the owner of a Huntington music store who recommended Mr. DeRosa to Coltrane after he came to the store in search of a duet partner.
Before long, Mr. DeRosa and Coltrane formed a band. They practiced at each other’s homes and played together for a couple of years until Coltrane’s death in 1967 at age 40 from liver cancer. During those years Mr. DeRosa also had his own orchestra, and in 1969, played at the first inaugural ball of President Richard Nixon.
For Mr. DeRosa, making music with legendary artists has now been a way of life for the better part of a century. But still, as he edges ever closer toward his 100th year, one goal remains elusive—playing onstage alongside Long Island’s most famous piano man, Billy Joel.
Mr. DeRosa’s desire to play with Mr. Joel can be attributed to his daughter, Ms. DeRosa Padden who, while listening to Mr. Joel’s hit “Just the Way You Are” a number of years ago, suggested that her father learn the saxophone solo in the song.
“I thought if we could get Billy Joel to hear it, maybe he’d like him to play the solo at a concert,” said Ms. DeRosa Padden. “Four years later we’re still trying.”
But Mr. DeRosa may be inching closer to the goal post.
In 2015, Mr. DeRosa performed “Just the Way You Are” and “New York State of Mind” on stage at the Paramount Theater in Huntington, the same town where he partnered up with John Coltrane more than half a century ago. The occasion for his Paramount sax solo was a concert by Big Shot, the Billy Joel tribute band fronted by vocalist and pianist Michael DelGuidice. While Mr. DeRosa’s dream of one day playing alongside Mr. Joel on stage may seem like a long shot, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. After years of covering the artist’s songs himself, Mr. DelGuidice was invited to join Mr. Joel’s band in 2013 as a rhythm guitarist and vocalist.
By the way, if the impossible dream happens for Mr. DeRosa too, Billy Joel can rest assured that the 97-year old is keeping up with his live performance skills. A few years ago, Ms. DeRosa Padden drove her father into New York City so he could perform alongside saxophonist Richie Cannata, a former member of Billy Joel’s original band, at a Monday night jam session at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village.
“It was 12:30 at night, I called and said I’m driving my father in and we’re staying overnight, so make sure he gets to play,” recalled Ms. DeRosa Padden. “My friend told Richie we were coming in. He invited my dad on the stage and though they had never met, the two of them did dueling saxophones.”
At the mention of that memory, Mr. DeRosa simply offered a sly grin and said, “Saxophone is keeping me young, busy and it’s good for my lungs.”
Billy Joel, we hope you’re listening.
On Saturday, May 11, Pat DeRosa performs with the Lynn Blue Band at the East Hampton Street Fair on Newtown Lane at 3:40 p.m. The Pat DeRosa Jazz Orchestra will play at the East Hampton Library (159 Main Street) on Saturday, June 15 at 6 p.m. Admission is free. To register call 631-324-0222 ext. 3.
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One fine body…