The Neighborhood Guy

Once mistaken for the class dummy, Joe Maneri has become an influential improvisational jazz musician

The Joe Maneri Quartet Inside, 2393 Professor Street, Tremont 9 p.m., Tuesday, June 20. $10, $8 for students. 216-621-1220
Joe blow: Maneri brings the house down.
Joe blow: Maneri brings the house down.
One of the greatest and most innovative improvising musicians of the last century, 73-year-old Joe Maneri, isn't well-known, but he's finally beginning to get the props that should have been his in the '50s. It would have been a tragedy if he had fallen through the cracks, because Maneri anticipated the currently avant-garde genre blending of John Zorn and Dave Douglas by at least 35 years, and he's still way ahead of his time.

Born to Sicilian immigrants in 1927, Maneri was raised in Brooklyn, New York. He did so badly in school that, flunking all his classes, he quit at age 15 to become a professional clarinetist/saxophonist. Years later he found that he had attention deficit disorder, but in 1942 that wasn't a malady that was medically recognized. Initially, Maneri took any kind of gig he could get, but he loved different kinds of music and learned from them all.

"I picked up a lot of styles in the '40s," he recalls in a phone interview. "I could play like Artie Shaw or Lester Young or Charlie Parker after hearing them play often. I picked up classical music right away; my mother heard it on the radio and sang along with the opera. Jewish, Polish, and Irish music came to me easily too, but I had trouble reading music due to the attention deficit disorder. Other people used to ridicule me, say I was stupid, because of it."

Maneri played jazz and pop, but was just as likely to perform at an ethnic wedding. From Balkan and Middle Eastern gigs, he developed a familiarity with microtonalism, which became one of the distinguishing characteristics of his music. In 1946, Maneri worked in the jazz group of pianist Ted Harris, who'd been studying with Josef Schmid, a disciple of the early atonal composer Alban Berg. Harris's band used to play atonal and free jazz before and after jobs and at rehearsals. Intrigued by Harris's knowledge, Maneri himself began a course of study with Schmid that lasted from 1947 until 1957. By the end of it, Maneri had become familiar with the styles of composers from Palestrina to Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, and was teaching private students himself.

"I had a lot of trouble learning the stuff [due to ADD]," he says. "But I'm a crackerjack teacher, because of my difficulties and the compassion I feel for people with these problems."

Around 1955 Maneri made a soundtrack for the film of his friend, painter George Dworzan; it was composed of a series of shots of paintings arranged in such a way as to tell a sea narrative. Maneri recorded three freely improvised lines: one on clarinet that he sped up, one on tenor sax that he slowed down, and one on prepared piano. Maneri mixed these tracks to create an amazing work which was in its own, unclassifiable genre, but he didn't talk much about it.

"At that time, I was so scared of being called stupid that I didn't discuss my work with anyone, because they might think I did it wrong," he explains. "I had a low opinion of myself when I was in grammar school. The other students thought I was the class dummy. The school used to call up my mother and tell her I fell asleep and ask what was wrong with me. Tutors didn't do me any good either. Then my mother used to call me stupid, so you get brainwashed. I still haven't got over it. Even now, when people tell me I play great, I have a hard time believing it."

In 1960 Maneri had some of his classical work performed at Carnegie Recital Hall. It received excellent reviews and led the Boston Symphony to commission him to do a piano concerto for them. This seemed like a huge break for him, but it turned out the piece was very difficult, requiring so much rehearsal time that it was shelved.

"It wasn't played until 20 years later," he explains. "I had it in my head, and it was very exciting to compose it. I was proud to complete it, but very depressed when they wouldn't do it."

Meanwhile, Maneri's ability as a clarinetist and saxophonist had won him some attention from other musicians. Classical flutist Robert DiDomenica recommended Maneri to Gunther Schuller, a well-known composer/musicologist who was looking for a tenor saxophonist to provide some improvisation in the context of an essentially classical work: a tribute to Ornette Coleman by composer David Reck, which Schuller was to conduct. Maneri's playing so impressed Schuller, also a champion of Coleman's, that he tried to get him a recording deal with Atlantic, playing jazz. A demo tape was made but turned down, because it was so far out. Maneri retained a copy of the tape, which contains some astounding music -- Maneri playing in a quartet with an excellent and very modern drummer, Pete Dolger, who urged him to take advantage of his gifts as a jazzman; pianist Don Burns; and bassist John Beal.

"[Pete Dolger] was an amazing drummer, but he never thought he was good enough," Maneri says. "I taught him for a while, and he encouraged me tremendously to develop along jazz lines. If you know you're good, but nobody else tells you that, it can really hurt your confidence. Dolger encouraged me to go on."

The quartet, with Maneri on tenor sax and clarinet, cut seven tunes, on which jazz, classical, and ethnic -- particularly Greek -- music are seamlessly integrated. All of the improvisation is free, and odd meters are employed. One of the tunes contains atonal improvisation, and Maneri's elastic rhythmic conception (sometimes he rushes ahead of the beat, sometimes he lays behind it), his timbrel variation -- involving the use of multiphonics -- and his use of microtones are so far out, they make Coleman sound like a traditionalist.

"When the tape was not accepted by Atlantic, it made me very pessimistic," Maneri remembers. "I felt as if, Why should a record company want me? Nobody else does. I was always failing. The only time I did something good was in my music, and even then it wasn't always appreciated."

When I became aware of Maneri in 1995, I had a long phone conversation with him, and as a result he sent me a cassette copy of his 1963 quartet recordings. I turned around and played them for John Zorn, who was so knocked out by them that he issued them on his Avant label (on the disc Paniots Nine), despite the fact that the master had been lost.

Eventually, Maneri's relationship with Gunther Schuller paid off. Schuller became president of the New England Conservatory of Music and hired Maneri to teach in 1970. Maneri's remained there ever since, but hasn't been given much attention by faculty or staff members, despite his amazing ability. He's simply too advanced for some to understand, but there's also some social prejudice at work. Maneri still speaks with a heavy working-class Brooklyn accent and is still what one of his students termed "a neighborhood guy."

While NEC faculty and staff members had no idea where Maneri was coming from -- although he's written a book about microtonalism and invented a new microtonal keyboard -- his students were crazy about him. Former NEC students, including Matt Darriau, Jamie Saft, Cuong Vu, Marcus Rojas, John Medeski, and Chris Speed, now important figures in New York's downtown scene, have all spoken highly of him.

Maneri remembers how hard school was for him and tries to do all he can for students, giving freely of his time and money for them. Rojas, also a working-class Brooklynite, remembers how difficult NEC was for him socially until he met Maneri, who taught while eating sandwiches. One of the main figures in the klezmer revival, Hankus Netsky, who founded the Klezmer Conservatory Band at NEC when he was a graduate assistant, asked Maneri to play at one of the Conservatory's Jewish concerts. Maneri, who'd played at tons of Jewish affairs in New York, responded at the 1981 program with a long, dazzling solo that mixed Jewish, jazz, classical, and even blues elements. Fortunately, his performance was recorded and is available on the above-mentioned Avant CD.

"Hankus Netsky started to play my tape in his classes as a model for klezmer clarinetists," remembers Maneri. "I was surprised that he was doing that. He never asked me about it and never did anything for me. When he was chairman of the jazz department at NEC, he never asked me to do anything."

But when Netsky started making it commercially as a klezmer musician, he still didn't help Maneri. In the late '80s Maneri's son Mat, a terrific improvising violinist, started to make it in bands around Boston and dragged Maneri out of the house to play with him. They recorded together in Mat's studio, and Leo Records issued one of their tapes. It so impressed producer Steve Lake at the prestigious avant-garde record label ECM that he was able to get Maneri gigs there.

Currently, Maneri's getting critical acclaim, but his stuff still doesn't have mass appeal. He's far from wealthy and has a hard road ahead of him, but if you're curious about what the music of the next century's going to sound like, Maneri's already there. On top of that, he's such a warm, good-humored guy that, when you see him live, he makes you love his music.

Scroll to read more Music News articles
Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.