Joe Blow

The story of reedist and composer Rich Corpolongo, like so many other Chicago stories, is the tale of a guy who’s worked hard most of his life just to keep himself squarely in the middle. He’s the proud owner of an Elmwood Park bungalow with Nancy, his wife of 25 years. He can’t speak highly enough of country starlet LeAnn Rimes. And he’s man enough to admit that after all this time The Godfather still brings him to tears.

But when this 55-year-old regular guy released his first album as a bandleader late last year–the aptly named Just Found Joy (Delmark), on which he applies a seamless blend of bebop, modal, and free playing to compositions informed by classical writing–the national jazz press hailed him as extraordinary. “It seems like people are starting to appreciate me now,” says Corpolongo, who’s wearing a Bears T-shirt and spreads his vowels wide in the Great Lakes tradition. “I always wanted it, and I worked my ass off to get it.”

The wanting started when Corpolongo was eight and heard clarinetist Artie Shaw on the radio in his brother’s car on the way to visit their dad’s grave. “I asked my brother Tony, ‘Hey, what is that instrument?’ The sound of the clarinet just got to me,” he explains, thumping his heart with his fist. Although he took a few lessons from a cousin who was a musician, it wasn’t for another three years that he began to study seriously, with the great but unheralded Chicago saxophonist Joe Daley. After four years he switched to tenor sax, continuing with Daley until he enrolled at Roosevelt University in 1960. In his early student days, he co-led a bop combo with fellow Chicago native Herbie Hancock.

It took Corpolongo six years to earn his composition degree because he took so many elective courses, an indication of his still-voracious appetite for musical knowledge. Although jazz was his first love, he figured out early that a thorough understanding of orchestral music, from theory to arranging, could only add to his skills as an improviser. “Composition and improvisation are basically the same thing, the same mental process,” he says. “You create something with your imagination. The only difference is that with composition you write it out and have time to edit your ideas. From studying composition, I learned how to edit my improvisations immediately.” He’s proud of the fact that all eight tracks on Just Found Joy are first takes.

As he finished up at Roosevelt, that old west-side pragmatism kicked in. “I put jazz on the back burner because I had to make a living first,” he says. He performed in theatrical pit bands, worked on TV jingles, gave private music lessons, and took soul-sapping wedding gigs. He married Nancy, and they bought the house. In the early 70s he played with Daley’s avant-garde unit Quorum but “wasn’t pursuing jazz 100 percent,” he says. “It was a sideline that kept my sanity.”

By the end of the decade, however, that had ceased to be enough. “I was playing a show–Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?–with a new conductor 15 years my younger, and he was telling me how to play,” says Corpolongo, a hint of irritation creeping into his voice. “He had no respect for my ability at all, and I realized then that lots of younger musicians had no respect for older musicians. It was ridiculous–how dare these assholes insult me?”

Corpolongo began pulling out of anonymous pro jobs in order to focus on jazz, and in 1984 he returned to Roosevelt to earn his master’s degree. He made daring records with Paul Wertico and Doug Lofstrom (as Spontaneous Composition) and Daley (as Sonic Blast). But even though he was playing jazz almost exclusively–and more exciting jazz than most full-time musicians do–the grind was getting to him. He says he’ll never play Pete Miller’s Steak House, Green Dolphin Street, or the Note again because all of them canceled his quartet’s gigs without notification. What ended up saving him at last was his membership in the relatively conservative Barrett Deems Big Band.

“I’d been thinking about getting out of the whole scene completely,” says Corpolongo. “Since I was 11 I told myself, ‘tomorrow could be a better day,’ if I practice, if I study more, if I work on my charts…but finally I realized I had less and less tomorrows.” So when Delmark honcho Bob Koester noticed him during a 1994 session with Deems and asked him to make his own record, it was just the jolt Corpolongo needed. He’s since accepted a steady teaching job at Wright College, and his second album as a leader is in the works. “Eventually I would’ve wrung somebody’s neck if I didn’t get out,” he says. “I hadn’t given myself the chance to test my ability as a real musician, to go out there as a jazz player and just do it.”

Corpolongo, who rarely performs live these days, will front a free trio with drummer Mike Raynor and bassist Brian Sandstrom on Wednesday at the Empty Bottle. His working quartet will perform at the Jazz Festival later this summer.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rich Corpolongo photo by Marc PoKempner.