Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
LaPorta, John, clarinet, alto sax, composer, educator; b. Philadelphia, PA, 1 April 1 1920. LaPorta began studying clarinet at age nine with, as he recalls, "a band teacher who very successfully taught me all the wrong things." He later learned correct methods at the Mastbaum School in Philadelphia, where one of his classmates was Buddy DeFranco, and he also studied classically with Joseph Gigliotti of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and, later, Leon Russianoff at the Manhattan School of Music. LaPorta also pursued his jazz studies, learning from the recordings of such idols as Basie, Ellington, Lester Young and Herschel Evans. He picked up both alto and tenor sax (he later came to prefer the alto) and also learned to write for large ensembles. As a teenager he began playing with bands in Philadelphia, and he ended up alongside such players as Charlie Ventura and Bill Harris.
In the early 1940's he joined the Bob Chester band, which included Herbie Steward, Irv Kluger and Boots Mussulli, among others. He was employed as the lead alto with Chester and he also wrote for the band. After Chester, LaPorta became a member of Woody Herman's raucous First Herd (he was on third alto), although he was not happy with his time in that group: "After Chester's band, where I had so much to do, I was really miserable. I had nothing to do except some lead clarinet, especially with the band blowing so much. I wanted to play." He continued to write, though, and he was lucky enough to study with Igor Stravinsky's assistant Alexis Aieff, who was touring with the band to conduct the Ebony Concerto, and with Ernest Toch on the west coast.
Following his stint with Herman, LaPorta settled in New York and began a significant period of study with Lennie Tristano, with whom he recorded four sides in late 1947, playing clarinet. They reveal a fluent player, although since he adapts so well to the Tristano group's contrapuntal fabric, it is difficult to arrive at definite conclusions about his style from those recordings. He also showed up on several radio broadcasts (also on clarinet) with Dizzy, Bird and Max Roach, and his playing holds up well on these sides in comparison with the giants. Around this time he began to focus his career on teaching, starting in the Parkway music school and eventually continuing in public schools on Long Island, Manhattan School of Music, and, ultimately, at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
LaPorta's playing and writing didn't cease, however. He maintained a rehearsal band during the late 40's for his own compositions, he was a member of the Metronome All-Star band in 1951, and in 1953 he was a founding member, with Charles Mingus and Teo Macero, of the Jazz Composer's Workshop. His association with Mingus actually dated to 1951, when he appeared on several recordings on Mingus's own Debut label. He was later on albums such as Jazz Experiments of Charles Mingus and Jazz Composers Workshop, playing both alto sax and clarinet. He also recorded twice as a leader for Debut. LaPorta gravitated more and more to teaching, but he continued to play and record into the 1960's. In 1985 he recorded for the first time in many a year for the Powerhouse label.
He is a forgotten player today, but LaPorta's recordings reveal a strong musician and clarinetist. His sound, like Jimmy Giuffre's, bore more of a stylistic resemblance to Lester Young's than anyone else's, and like Giuffre he was linked with the "Cool" school (particularly because of his association with Tristano). Also like Giuffre, his improvisations bear the mark of well-schooled and thoughtful player, but also display a more extroverted attitude, unafraid to display technique in the service of his muse.
LaPorta has retired from teaching and currently lives in Florida.