Noto-riety: The Jazz Odyssey of Sam Noto

by Phil Nyhuis

“Like a rare and seldom-seen comet, a jazz trumpet virtuoso like Sam Noto could only burst upon he Buffalo music scene once in a couple of centuries.”Sometime in the early 1960s, Sam Noto and his quintet opened for Miles Davis at the Town Casino, one of Buffalo’s long-ago jazz joints on Main Street. Sam’s band had come off the bandstand and Sam was standing against a wall listening to Miles. After his solo, Miles walked off the stand as his band continued to play and approached Noto.

“He was standing next to me and I could feel him looking at me,” remembers Sam.
After a long pause, Miles asks, in his signature rasp, “How do you like Tony?”
Sam: “Sounds great, man.” (Tony Williams was Miles’ new young drummer.)
Another long pause, then: “How do you like George?”
Sam: “Sounds great, man.” (George Coleman was the band’s post-Coltrane tenor saxophonist.)
Another pause, then: “Tony hates George.” And Miles walks back to the stand.

Like all his stories, Sam Noto tells this one with perfect showman’s timing and with such vivid detail that you can almost smell the cigarettes, sweat, and perfume and hear the band in the background. Then he laughs his big infectious laugh and everybody cracks up.

Buffalo, New York can lay claim to plenty of world class jazz musicians including drummers Frankie Dunlop, Louis Marino, and Mel Lewis; saxophonists Elvin Shepherd, Don Menza, Bobby Militello, and Grover Washington, Jr.; pianists Wade Legge and Al Tinney; and bassists Sabu Adeyola and Lou Hackney. But when it comes to jazz trumpet players, one man’s achievements eclipse them all. Like a rare and seldom-seen comet, a jazz trumpet virtuoso like Sam Noto could only burst upon the Buffalo music scene once in a couple of centuries.

Sam Noto was born in 1930, when Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Chick Webb and others were reshaping the composition of jazz groups from small dance orchestras to big bands with sophisticated arrangements and star soloists. By the mid-40s when Sam was already a promising trumpet player, Benny Goodman was the King of Swing and his trumpet star was Harry James, a superb player and the role model for many young trumpeters, including Sam. But then something completely unexpected happened.

In the mid-20th century, recordings were sold in music stores with private booths where you could listen to a record before buying it. One day when he was about 14, Sam was in a music store on Main Street when he ran into Sammy Cal and another young saxophonist.

“They were in a booth checking out records,” recalls Sam. “I was looking for Harry James. Sammy knocked on the glass and asked have you heard of Bird and Diz? I said no. So I went in their booth and they played “Shaw ‘Nuff.” It was unbelievable! It hit me like a thunderbolt. I was there for four hours. They had to throw me out of the store. It turned my life around. I could have been the next Harry James!”

Released on the Guild label in 1945, this recording with its breakneck tempo, jagged intervals, and the audacious virtuosity of Parker and Gillespie is still astonishing nearly seven decades later. Sam is one of the last of that generation of kids who came up in the 40s listening with dropped jaws and big ears to the revolutionary young men of bebop–Bird, Diz, Miles, Clifford, Monk, and Fats Navarro–and honing their skills to become first rate players of this brilliant and complex new jazz idiom. You can still hear those intricate, hip, tastefully melodic lines in Noto’s playing as well as the continued musical passion evident in his love for occasionally screaming in the upper register. It’s that passion, that unquenchable fire, plus a high level of technical skill and musicality that set Sam apart and can be heard on the many recordings he made over nearly 50 years as one of the world’s leading jazz players.

He first appeared as a sideman on a small group recording date in 1954 in Los Angeles led by trombonist Frank Rosolino on the Stan Kenton Presents label when both men were members of the Kenton band. Tenorman Charlie Mariano was also on that session in a breakaway jazz group sponsored by Kenton, vaguely similar to what Goodman did earlier with the jazz stars of his band but with a very different musical outcome. Sam’s next recording was in 1960 at a live date at Buffalo’s Big Mother’s Club near UB, a 7-night-a-week gig featuring Noto plus Don Menza and Larry Covelli on saxophones. With drummer Clarence Becton and bassist Nick Molfese the band recorded a hit single, “Spanish Boots,” that Sam recalls was “on all the jukeboxes in town.”

Out on the road

But long before he achieved recognition as a jazz soloist, Sam Noto was a loyal soldier in the trumpet sections of several big bands, first as a section player and then as a sought-after lead trumpet. The Swing Era was winding down but many bands were still appearing nightly across the nation throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, fronted by the musical stars of the time. At 16, Sam left the linotype printing program at Burgard High School and went on the road with Allen Craig, a bandleader from Chicago, who fronted a typical commercial dance band. With his mother crying and his Sicilian father scowling, Sam and fellow trumpeter Al Bonati caught a train to Richmond where they joined the band and made $55 a week. The boys had to cover their own hotel expenses of $1.50 a night. After the bandleader left with the girl singer and two weeks worth of payroll, the stranded lads worked their way back home to father Noto’s “I told you so.”

A short stint in a Buffalo furniture factory followed and then a brief tour with the Dean Hudson band, another dance outfit that played country clubs in the South. The leader, whose real name was Marion Brown, was a friend of Tommy Dorsey and the band was a sort of training ground for Dorsey sidemen. But Sam opted out. “He was a real personable guy but all we did was play dance music,” says Noto. “I stood that for a while and then I quit. Just couldn’t take it anymore.”

This time, on the way back home, Sam stopped in New York City and found his way to Charlie’s Tavern, a well-known hangout for musicians. There he met Herman Rosenberg, a writer for Downbeat, who reported on the frequent changes of personnel in the big bands in a column called “Sideman Switches.” Rosenberg told Noto about an open rehearsal and audition for the Claude Thornhill orchestra, a dance band with wide influence in the jazz world. At the rehearsal, Sam was assigned third chair in the trumpet section and, while other aspiring players were dismissed, Sam was offered a spot in the band. Thornhill’s manager told him the band was going out on tour in two weeks.

“Two weeks?,” Sam replied. “I can’t afford to stay in New York for two weeks but I’ll go home to Buffalo and you call me in two weeks and tell me where to meet you.” The manager said okay, but he never called.

At age 17, Sam was hired to join the band of Clyde McCoy, a cornball trumpet player who parlayed one tune, a wahwah-muted trumpet feature called “Sugar Blues,” into a six-decade musical career. After a few months of this, Sam blew a bop solo on a McCoy Latin chart. The leader screamed at him in the middle of the tune that he had “played all the wrong notes,” and threatened to fire him. Sam saved him the trouble and quit. He returned to Buffalo and got a job in the pit band at the Palace Burlesque. He made $155 for playing 29 shows a week–four shows on Sunday through Friday and five on Saturday.

A Buffalo trumpet legacy

Sam Noto wasn’t of course the only accomplished Italian trumpet player from Buffalo. Throughout much of the history of jazz, it seems that 90 percent of the great white players were of Italian/Sicilian descent–from Nick LaRocca with the Original Dixieland Jass Band, cornetist on the first jazz recording, to Buffalo-born drummer Carmen Intorre. Although today the city is renowned for its superb Italian saxophone players (Menza, Militello, D’Alba, Andolina, DiRe, Ingrassia, Shiavone, Campagna, Carere, Tudini, Griffo, Runfola), in the mid-20th century Buffalo’s Italian community was breeding high quality trumpet players the way that Canada cranks out hockey stars. A short list would include Jabber Calabrese, Frank Picone, Tony Costantini, Frank Collura, Angelo Lorenzo (who played with the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra and Glenn Miller), Tony Terran (Horace Heidt, Desi Arnaz, and the famed Wrecking Crew of LA studio musicians), Don Paladino (Les Brown, Johnny Long, Stan Kenton), Louis Mucci (Gil Evans/Miles Davis), and Charlie Parlato (Kay Kyser, Tennessee Ernie Ford, & Lawrence Welk). Charlie’s son Dave is a renowned LA session bassist and his granddaughter Gretchen Parlato is an acclaimed jazz singer and winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in 2004.


A long list would also include Charlie San Felippo, Gino and Americo Bono, Joey Giambra, Al Bonati, Russ Scire, Jay Maran (née Joseph Marranca), Joe Gustaferro, Danny Lampone (Lenny Lewis), Ettore Perreca (Bernie Sandler), Joe Vastola, Chauncey Cromwell (née Vincenzo Paisano), Ralph Martino, Harry Syracuse and, more recently, John DiLiberto and Dennis Tribuzzi (Tommy Dorsey, Doc Severinsen).

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Sam Noto played both lead and solo trumpet with the leading big bands of the era and traveled the world. He played a jazz festival with Louis Bellson and Pearl Bailey in Fano, Italy on the Adriatic just south of San Marino. He and his wife Arleen toured Europe with Stan Kenton, and he also toured and played in Las Vegas with Count Basie. Sam was 23 when he got his first call from Stan Kenton. The band bus had been in an accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and two trumpet players were out of commission. Sam and George Holt played the Buffalo gig and Noto was invited to go out on tour with the band the next day. When trumpeter Conte Condoli didn’t return to the band, Sam’s tour was extended for several months. What happened on that tour put Sam over the moon. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie joined the band and Noto got to listen to Bird, his greatest jazz hero and inspiration, every night for three months!

Pick a period throughout Noto’s nearly 50-year recording career and listen (if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on a recording). His tone is always full and resonant, even on the supercookers. Like Clifford Brown, one of his inspirations, Noto’s jazz solos possess effortless technical mastery, a flawless sense of time, an endless supply of musical ideas, and a haunting, burnished sound. In fact, with all due respect to Lee Morgan, perhaps no more moving performance of “I Remember Clifford” by Benny Golson can be heard than Noto’s version on his 2-4-5 album recorded in Toronto with Gary Williamson, Steve Wallace, Bob McLaren, Neil Swainson, and Pat LaBarbara.

Vegas and jazz recognition

After scuffling in a factory making car batteries for $82.50 a week, in 1968 Sam moved to Las Vegas for steady work in a casino show band. Here he reunited with his old Kenton pal, the great jazz trombonist Carl Fontana. Together, they played in the show band at the Silver Slipper and blew jazz after hours. Suddenly he was making $600 a week and was able to move his family out the following month. But perhaps his most auspicious hookup was with fellow trumpeter Red Rodney, who was so wigged out by Noto’s chops that he proposed a recording session with both trumpets in Los Angeles. The result was an album entitled Superbop with a horn section including Buffalo tenor Larry Covelli and a rhythm section comprising Dolo Coker, Ray Brown, and Shelly Manne. On this, his first major recording as a mature soloist, Sam is a Flying Wallenda of the jazz trumpet, soaring high above the rhythm section without a net but with astonishing power, facility, and what sounds like sheer joy.

Superbop was a nod to Supersax, the group assembled by the saxophonist Med Flory, which played Charlie Parker solos harmonized for five saxes accompanied by a rhythm section and by trumpeter Conte Condoli, the guy Sam first subbed for in his debut with the Kenton band. (Other Noto pals who worked with Supersax were Don Menza, Carl Fontana, Blue Mitchell, and Frank Rosolino.) The title tune of Superbop is Sam’s harmonizing of Clifford Brown’s solo on his composition “Daahoud.”

In his liner notes to Superbop, jazz critic Ira Gitler says of Noto, “When [record producer] Don Schlitten and I visited [Red Rodney] in Las Vegas in 1969, he introduced us to Sam Noto and praised him to the rather expansive western skies. We had known Sam as a power player with Stan Kenton back in the 1950s but not as a particularly outstanding jazz soloist. He played with Count Basie in 1964-65 and then returned to his native Buffalo where he and saxophonist Joe Romano had a quintet. When we heard him in Vegas it was obvious a metamorphosis had taken place. Noto had become an all-around jazz virtuoso.”

Earlier examples of Noto’s evolution as a jazz artist were documented by Sam’s friend and business partner, the late Lou Marinaccio, in live recordings made on consecutive weekends in September 1966 at the Renaissance, the jazz club they ran together on Pearl Street in the mid-60s. Ray Chamberlain was the guitarist on these dates and he recently talked about those recordings and the scene at the Renaissance:

“People tell me, ‘You guys must have really rehearsed those bebop tunes,’ but we had never played together before,” Ray recalled. “You either knew them or you didn’t. Sam normally used a piano but with the guitar those two weekends he sounded more melodic. We used to go to the club after hours and occasionally I sat in. Monty Alexander was always there. George Shearing came. And Gene Harris was always in town. Louie made all these tapes but the piano was always out of tune. He had an old Webcor tape recorder, seven and a half inch per second, with a six-dollar used microphone over in a corner someplace. Louie got all these great guys sitting in and it sounds like the piano is sitting out in the middle of Pearl Street. But Sam was in a class all by himself. Self-taught. Never any rehearsals. No music. And when he went to Vegas, he really got his chops playing lead trumpet as well as jazz seven nights a week.”

Despite Chamberlain’s technical critique, the two CDs Marinaccio created in the ’90s from those tapes–“Live at the Renaissance”–display the band remarkably well. All the players, including drummer Al Cecchi, bassist Tommy Azarello, and Chamberlain still sound clean, inventive, and inspired. Noto’s blazing virtuosity is on full display but his musical ideas have not yet reached the heights he would achieve in the following decades. On the second CD, recorded the following weekend, tenor man Joe Romano joins Sam and Ray with bassist Joel DiBartolo and drummer Billy Thiel.

“We opened the Renaissance in ’65 and we were there for one year,” Sam recalls. “Every weekend we’d play from 10 to 2, take an hour off, and play from 3 to 6. We didn’t have a liquor license so we didn’t have to worry about closing. People would come for breakfast between 3 and 6 after leaving the bars and order steak and eggs. We charged a buck or two to get in. Musically, it was fantastic. To play the music I wanted to play all the time was fantastic. I broke through a lot of barriers there.”

The Xanadu years

After recording Superbop on the Muse label in 1974, producer Don Schlitten founded Xanadu Records in 1975 and showcased Sam Noto on two albums that year. Entrance!, recorded in March with pianist Barry Harris, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and drummer Lenny McBrowne is Noto’s first album as sole leader and it’s a tour de force, beginning with a blistering up-tempo romp through Fats Navarro’s “Fats Flats” and also including the gorgeous ballad “The Things I Love” based on a melody by Tchaikovsky as well as two original tunes by Sam. In December, Sam and Barry went back into the studio with Joe Romano, Sam Jones, and Billy Higgins to record Act One. This session took place in New York after Noto finally escaped the soul-numbing Vegas scene for the more jazz-hospitable precincts of Toronto and, except for a ballad medley, the tunes feature intricate original Noto melodic lines, some of which are based on chord changes of standard tunes.

Sam began writing while taking informal big band arranging lessons from a trombone player he worked with at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. He also received a government grant to write jazz charts while in Toronto. Although he once assembled a band in Buffalo and presented a concert of his big band writing, his main focus was on writing for small groups, especially his own quartets, quintets, and sextets. Nearly all his small group recordings contain at least two or three Noto originals. Their titles reflect his keen intelligence and wit and his affection for his family. “Cross Chris” was inspired by his obstreperous young son Christopher, “Jen-Jen” by his daughter Jennifer, and “Lady Arleen” by his wife, the hip chick he met on a blind date who already knew all about Bird and Diz. “Quasinoto” and “Notes to You” are both on the album Notes to You recorded on Xanadu in 1977 with Joe Romano, Ronnie Cuber, Jimmy Rowles, Sam Jones, and Freddie Waits. Noto-riety is both the name of a tune and the title of another Xanadu album that pairs Sam Noto with the phenomenal jazz flutist Sam Most.

In 1976, Sam got a call from Don Schlitten asking him to come back to New York for another recording session. When he arrived at the studio in Manhattan, Noto was surprised to see fellow trumpeter Blue Mitchell already warming up. Figuring he was in the wrong studio, he was about to leave when a voice from the control booth said, “Stick around, Sam, you’re in the right place.” It was Schlitten, who had arranged the session as a complete and unrehearsed surprise to all the musicians who, in addition to the two trumpet players, included Barry Harris, Sam Jones, Louis Hayes, and two tenors–Al Cohn and Dexter Gordon, recently returned from a 15-year expatriate sojourn in Europe. The resulting album, True Blue, contains just three tunes (since everybody gets to blow extensively), including the title tune by Blue Mitchell, “How Deep is the Ocean,” and “Lady Bird,” the first selection, with the premier solo by Dex, then a scorching chorus by Sam. According to Sam, Dexter Gordon, the conquering hero, arrived at the session with a sizable entourage including the famed jazz baroness, Pannonica de Koenigswarter.

At the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 15, 1978, the Xanadu all-stars–Sam Noto, Ronnie Cuber, Frank Butler, Sam Most, Al Cohn, Sam Jones, Dolo Coker, Ted Dunbar, Barry Harris, and Billy Mitchell–played four sets at the Montreux Casino. The remarkable results can be heard on a four-volume vinyl set issued by Xanadu, one of which (Volume 3) is available on Amazon.

Toronto and beyond

Noto spent 13 productive years in Toronto playing, recording, and working as a section man and soloist with Rob McConnell’s great big band, the Boss Brass. He also worked in small group settings with leading Canadian players such as Pat LaBarbara, Terry Clark, Dave Young, Mark Eisenman, Kirk McDonald, Frank Falco, and Guido Basso. In the midst of his Canadian sojourn, he opened another jazz club in Buffalo, the Renaissance II, where he brought in jazz legends like Tom Harrell, Al Cohn, Chet Baker, Don Menza, and Scott Hamilton on weekends and reserved Monday nights as a showcase for aspiring local players. He is undoubtedly the only Buffalo instrumentalist ever to invest his time, talent, and resources to open two jazz clubs in the city. But politics, location, and a dwindling jazz audience eventually forced the closure of the club and Sam returned his focus to his work and legions of fans in Toronto.

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In 1988, with diminishing calls for club and studio work in Toronto and a steadily increasing cost of living, Sam moved back to the Buffalo area but continued an active schedule of club dates and big band sessions in both Buffalo and Toronto. In June 2008, two decades after leaving the city, Noto was feted with a celebration at the Rex Hotel in a show of affection by all the top trumpet players in Toronto as well as a strong contingent of Buffalo fans. He continues to play with his Buffalo quintet, to rehearse with a big band weekly at the Sportsmen’s Tavern in Black Rock, and to perform with his band in Toronto.

In his bittersweet play, Bread & Onions, a paean to the immigrant Italian community on Buffalo’s Lower West Side, Joey Giambra evokes the haunting trumpet of the young Sam Noto playing a wedding at Sorrento’s Hall above the Royal Gardens Café & Bar at Busti and Georgia. Later, Sam would begin to test his jazz wings with Frank Picone, Larry Covelli, and Joe Campagna at Banny’s on Niagara Street. All would become outstanding players and Sam, with all of his jazz mastery and critical acclaim, would continue to return to Buffalo and his jazz roots. Today, Sam is cherished nearly as much for his wealth of stories as for his playing. Like the poetry of Giambra, the stories reflect the lives and personalities of a tougher but perhaps finer time. He recently told of a time when he was playing with Kenton at age 23 and ran into the formidable lead player Conrad Gozzo. He asked Goz the secret of his beautiful tone and amazing power and Gozzo replied, “Lasagna and whiskey, kid.”

Thanks to Sam Noto, Joey Giambra, and Ray Chamberlain.
For more on the music and life of Sam Noto, see: