Ask a clarinetist who Vincent J. Abato was and they will certainly mention his many years playing bass clarinet with the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. They might mention his long career teaching clarinet and saxophone at the Juilliard School of Music. Those really in the know will possibly mention his staggering rendition, on clarinet, of the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, with clarinet choir accompaniment by a Who’s Who of 1960s orchestral and studio clarinet players including Bernard Portnoy, Herb Blayman, Charles Russo, Joe Allard, Al Gallodoro, and Al Klink. Perhaps some might even mention his more famous students such as Eddie Daniels, Phil Woods, Ron Odrich, and my own teacher who first introduced me to Mr. Abato, Victor Morosco.
Ask a classical saxophonist and they will surely tell you of his groundbreaking recordings of the Jacques Ibert Concertino da Camera and Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto for Saxophone. They might know him as the man who was the first and last (with a long interlude taught by Joe Allard) classical saxophone professor at Julliard. Many will talk about his breathtaking work as saxophonist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in such operas as Porgy and Bess and Lulu. Those really in the know might mention his world premiere recording of the Paul Creston Saxophone Sonata, with the composer himself at the piano or his world premiere performance, at age 24, of Creston’s Concerto for Saxophone with the New York Philharmonic. The Creston Concerto performance is particularly interesting; it was performed while Mr. Abato was serving as the Philharmonic’s bass clarinetist. In his own words, the saxophone was, at the time, just something he kept in his locker for dance band gigs.
Ask a jazz scholar or a big band fanatic and they will likely respond, “Oh, you mean Jimmy Abato?” and tell you that until his passing he was one of the last people still alive who had once played with the Glenn Miller Band, followed by a clarification of with the namesake of the band. They might tell of his stint with the Claude Thornhill band. Some scholars may even mention his brief appearance as alto saxophone soloist on the top 40 popular charts.
I was privileged to know Vincent J. Abato during the last years of his life. Jimmy, as his many friends called him, and I spent many hours discussing everything from those who influenced him (Jascha Heifetz and Tommy Dorsey), his favorite conductors (Arturo Toscanini and James Levine), and all the many famous people he came in contact with throughout his vast career. As just one example, he would tell the story of playing bass clarinet in Strauss’ Don Quixote during the famous Leonard Bernstein episode where Bernstein had to step in at the last minute as conductor of the New York Philharmonic for the then ailing Bruno Walter.
The tendency is often to overly romanticize those who have passed on, but it is not exaggerating to say that Vincent Abato was a man who would give the shirt off his back for his friends. Mention your friendship with Vincent Abato to anyone who knew him as a friend, and you are immediately treated like family. At the same time, it is important to know that he was always a man who said exactly what he thought. He was honest to perhaps a fault with the highest standard of music; these characteristics tended to put off people just as often as it attracted them. He was a man who was great at what he did, but at the same time a man who might be called narrow. It is tempting, though, to wonder if it is possible for anyone to achieve even some of the heights he reached without some set of critics crying narrow.
Sitting and talking with him late in his life, you might hear him say that his biggest regret was dropping out of school during the Great Depression so he could perform on clarinet to help his family pay the bills. You would certainly be regaled with stories about just about everyone in the music world. On one day, he might tell you the story of sitting at lunch with Daniel Bonade (who played second clarinet to Mr. Abato’s first on the Firestone Radio Hour), when Mr. Bonade was approached by Benny Goodman for lessons (Mr. Bonade said no.). On another day, he might tell the story of giving a young upstart clarinetist his first job in New York at the request of Mr. Bonade. A young upstart clarinetist named Robert Marcellus. Your next conversation might be about recording with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Sarah Vaughan (“Always first alto!”, he would say). He might tell you the story of Charlie Parker observing one of his lessons. You would always walk away with an immeasurable feeling of knowing all of these people, who are themselves so often deified, as real human beings.
Of all the stories he would tell, there was one that perhaps best captures the range of the man known as Vincent J. Abato. I often asked Mr. Abato about innate talent versus training, and one day he told me a story about a clarinet student auditioning at Juilliard. The student played his audition for the panel (which included such players as Daniel Bonade, Augustin Duques, and, of course, Mr. Abato) and each of the judges wrote down whether they would accept the player or not. Each paper was examined, and in the end, all the votes were no... all except for Mr. Abato’s.
The head of the panel asked Mr. Abato why he voted to accept this student whom everyone else had rejected. Mr. Abato responded that this student had more talent than anyone in the room (and this was quite a room full of talent!), and he would prove it if they would bring the student back in. They brought the student back in and Mr. Abato had him go through a few basic tests, involving singing and reproducing pitches played at the piano. Afterwards, the head of the panel agreed to accept the student if Mr. Abato was willing to take him on. Mr. Abato agreed, and the student was accepted. The name of this clarinet player who, I should add, has graciously allowed me to share this story, is Phil Woods.
Here is the end of the story in Phil Woods’ own words, perhaps made clearer to all by Mr. Abato’s at the time secret wish to have been able to graduate himself:
“I missed my final exam because I was working at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, very close to Juilliard physically, but light years away philosophically. I had taken a leave of absence to do a tour with Charlie Barnet's great band, and my exam coincided with our Apollo sojourn. Unfortunately, due to my youthful stupidity, my clarinet was stolen on the day of the exam. I went to the school to tell Mr. Abato what happened and asked if I could re-schedule at a later date. He went ballistic and called me some very bad names. I never took the exam and regret not getting my diploma, but things happen. Never saw Mr. Abato again but I had some great lessons. I got a kick out of some friends telling me that whenever my name was mentioned he would say, ‘Phil Woods? Taught the kid everything he knows!’ Maybe Jimmy - maybe! A difficult man sometimes but he was a very important man in my formative years.”
Ask me who Vincent J. Abato was, and I will tell you he was perhaps one of my closest friends in the world, someone I will always consider to be family, and someone who will continually guide me in my life and career. And, for the record, he asked me to ensure that his name is forever more recorded as Vincent Joseph Abato, even though, as if he wanted to remain an enigma even in his own passing, there are references in his own hand writing to Vincent James Abato.
Thank you Jimmy. You made the world a better place through your music. You made the world a better place by being you.