Roe Coletta - Great Teacher – Great Guy – Great Friend



At the age of eleven, I walked into the music office of Rosario (Roe) Coletta, which began a relationship that lasted for fifty-eight years until Roe passed away on September 22, 2015, just short of his 93rd birthday.  Had it not been for Roe, who opened up the world of music and much more to me, my life would have been very different, to say the least.  I wrote the following tribute to Roe in 2010, after my wife Nancy and I visited Roe and Judy before they moved to Florida.  Please take a few minutes to get to know this great man, as I knew him.    

Sir James Galway and Roe Coletta at the wedding of Galway's brother-in-law in the early 1990s. (Roe was playing for the wedding and Galway hung out with him all night).

I first met Roe, wanting to sign up for the band program to be with a couple of my friends.  One of the guys already had been playing trombone, my other friend signed up for trumpet lessons and I signed up for the saxophone.  It was not that I had any great love of the saxophone, but my parents loved Jimmy Dorsey and therefore having heard his records and having seen him on television, it seemed like a good choice.  As things turned out, it was an excellent choice, because unbeknownst to me, the saxophone was Roe’s instrument.   As a result, I got to hear what the saxophone (and later, the clarinet) was supposed to sound like from a master musician.

As a beginning music student I was nothing special, but because the school music program gave me the opportunity to play in the band and take lessons with Roe every week, I became more and more interested.  I began to practice and slowly but surely, began to shine musically.  I was fairly lazy about certain things such as reading, but as Roe pointed out early on, I had a pretty good ear and could catch-on to what was happening pretty quickly. 

Roe and Billy, around 2010

By the time I reached the 7th grade (the next year), Roe gave me a few chances to be in the spotlight.  One day at band rehearsal while playing a march, Roe pointed to me motioning for me to come to the podium.  When I got there he handed me his baton (actually a pencil, he never used a baton) and told me to conduct while he went to the back of the room to listen.  I knew nothing about conducting, but I tried to do what I thought Roe was doing.  In any event the band continued to follow me and even stopped when I cut them off.  After that day I conducted that march every time we played it, including at the performance, which was attended by family and friends.

When I was in the 7th grade, the school district only had one high school building that included grades 7 – 12.  One day I was summoned to the music office of Bob Cleveland, the supervisor of music for the entire district.  Roe and Mr. Cleveland told me that someone had just quit the Senior High Dance Band (that’s what they called it then), and they wanted to know if I wanted to join the band.  I was in the 7th grade, the band was made up of kids in grades 10 – 12; this was like getting called to the majors from double AA ball.  Roe told Cleveland that of all the kids in the program, he thought I would do a good job.  One minor problem was that I would have to play tenor, which I never played before.  Roe gave me a mouthpiece and a crash course on the tenor saxophone.  I remained the 4th tenor player for the next two years until I changed schools, attending the new junior high.

By the middle of the 8th grade I was getting pretty tired of playing whole notes in the concert band while the clarinets were having all the fun playing faster notes.  I went to Roe and told him I wanted to start to play the clarinet.  His response was that he wanted me to stick with the saxophone and really learn it before I moved to the clarinet.  Several weeks later Roe was out of school for a week with the flu.   During that week another teacher by the name of Vince Pebbles was recruiting kids to learn the bass fiddle.  I decided I would learn the bass and became part of the group.  I think we had a lesson everyday at lunchtime, learning the rudiments of the bass.  When Roe got back to school the next week he got wind of my little maneuver.  He told me that he would start me on the clarinet if I’d quit bass lessons.  I agreed and Roe cooled it out with Pebbles. 

I studied clarinet for the rest of the term with Roe in school and practiced like a maniac all summer.  When school began in the fall I was playing 1st chair, 1st clarinet.  I spent the rest of that year practicing the clarinet on my own without private lessons.  When I got back to the senior high school I realized that I wanted to make music my life’s work.  I had no idea exactly what I wanted to do, or how to go about doing it, but I was hooked on music.  I told Roe “I wanted to make it,” his response was, “what does that mean?”  I had no idea, but I was not going to be deterred.   Realizing this, Roe said I would have to study the clarinet seriously and major in clarinet, not saxophone, in college.  My parents didn’t have much money and could not afford music lessons for me.  I began to study clarinet with Roe privately for the next three years, paying $3 a lesson.  I generally had lessons on Monday nights, his last student of the day, and the lessons would last two or more hours.  On many occasions Roe and his wife Judy would go out after my lesson and I would stay and babysit, a great way to avoid worry about the cost of lessons.  Roe made the same arrangement in lieu of payment for several mouthpieces that I acquired over the ensuing years.

Lessons with Roe were always great; he would play with me at all the lessons.  We covered all the major books, Klose, Rose, Jeanjean etc., solos, duets.  The best part was that I got to hear that great clarinet sound every week.  I heard that singing sound, the “ping,” that fluid approach. The sound that Roe got on the clarinet and saxophone has been burnt into my brain from all those years of lessons. To this day I get compliments all the time on my sound.  That sound has never left me.

Roe was always on my side, always watching out for me.  During my senior year of high school I had a meeting with a guidance councilor about my plans for college.  Academically I was not exactly a model student, the councilor told me there was no way that I would be accepted to any college and that I should start thinking about going to a trade school.  I told him I was planning on going to Juilliard where admission was predicated on musical performance not academic achievement.  He’d have none of it, and told me he would send materials to me pertaining to vocational training. 

Crushed, I left his office and went right to the music department.  By chance Roe was in the office that day for a department meeting (he was not assigned to the high school).  When I told him what had just happened he made a beeline for the guidance councilor’s office and read him the “riot act.”  The councilor relented and helped me with the necessary paper work for Juilliard. 

Roe eventually sent me to his teacher, Augustin Duques, who was the teacher with whom I would study at Juilliard. While I think Roe was always a bit concerned about whether or not I would actually “make it” in music, he did everything he could to help me get there.

One really proud moment for me happened in around 1975 when I was hired to play with Henry Mancini.  I was actually hired to “be the Pink Panther,” meaning I was hired to play the famous saxophone solo in concert.  I called Roe and told him about it, knowing all of the stories of his army days in Europe during WW II, and his association with Mancini in particular.  I thought he might be able to come to the concert.  As it turned out, Roe was working that day, but because the Mancini concert was a mid-afternoon gig, Roe was able to get there for a few hours, and came with a trumpet player friend.  They saw some of the rehearsal and concert, and Roe got to hang out with Mancini, whom he had not seen in almost thirty years.  I could not have been more proud. 

I have known Roe and Judy for over fifty years, and while we don’t get to see each other very often, whenever my wife Nancy and I get back to New York we always make a date to see the Colettas.  I have no idea what my life would have been like without music, but without Roe Coletta’s guidance and help, it would have been very different indeed.