I met Joe when I moved to New york in the late 1970s and played one of my first gigs with Chuck Isreals and the National Jazz Ensemble. Joe was playing baritone. He was really old. He was like in his forties.
Needless to say, at nineteen I was pretty green, and when we were rehearsing Duke's Ko-Ko, I was coming at it with this very bright, modern sound. After all, I was a musical product of the 70s, exposed to jazz-rock and fusion. Joe yelled at me in his thick Scottish accent: “Ya gotta play it with a dark sound. This is Duke Ellington.” Sal Nistico, playing tenor, even chimed in: “Yeah, man, ya gotta play it with respect.” I did try, but I thought these guys are old fashioned. I'm the new shit.
Chuck one night said to me “Do you recognize Joe's genius?” I didn't know how to answer that. I didn’t know how to answer it because I wasn’t capable of answering it. I still was drawn more to fast notes and phrases, things that hit you over the head, and less interested in melodies and spaces.
Within a few months Chuck closed down that band and moved Washington State to teach. I didn't see Joe much except on a few Bobby Rosengarden club dates. But I was growing up. I started to pay attention to the big, warm, fuzz sound emanating from Joe's vintage Conn baritone. I was starting to recognize Joe’s genius.
I few years later, probably in the early 90s, I ran into Joe at the musicians union. I had heard he was playing with Wynton Marsalis, someone I had always wanted to play with (but figured never would). I asked Joe how it was playing with Wynton and the band. His reply: “Wynton plays with such humanity.” It was such a beautiful answer for so many reasons. I had expected him to describe how Wynton runs the band, or give me some dirt. But Joe got right to the soul of the matter. That’s Joe. No BS, just pure soul.
Joe was a teacher. Not just in the sense of being in a classroom, but in the sense that he always said and played exactly what he felt and heard. He taught all of us how to find the meaning in the music.