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RIP, Laurence Laurenzano

My dad emailed me yesterday to give me the sad news that my middle school band director, Laurence Laurenzano, had passed away. If there’s one person responsible for instilling in me a love of making music, it’s Larry Laurenzano. I beg your indulgence while I stroll down memory lane for a moment.

My high school band director once said “There’s a special place in heaven for middle school band directors.” He wasn’t saying that because he was a sentimental Mr. Holland’s Opus kind of guy (note to fellow Stuy grads: that’s Max Watras I’m talking about – you may commence guffawing now), he was saying it because anyone who could put up with the earsplitting cacaphony of fifty twelve-year-olds honking out the Marine Corps March in eight different keys with the enthusiasm and determination needed to eventually produce musicians that high school conductors like himself could tolerate was made of very stern stuff. Larry Laurenzano was all that and more.

What I remember most about Larry is that as long as he knew where to find you, there was a band he was putting together that he wanted you to join. The Big Apple Band, various street-festival jazz bands, the venerable Morris Intermediate School Alumni Band (one of my classmates at Morris is a professional jazz saxophone player), and on and on. How he found time for all of these bands has always been a mystery to me.

My first real exposure to jazz music came from Larry. The summer after I graduated from Morris he had a jazz band going that rehearsed in a classroom at Curtis High School. Imagine a 20-piece band in an un-air conditioned room, with the windows open so we won’t overheat and roof work going on a couple of floors down. I can still smell the tar, but I didn’t care. It was fun. You couldn’t help but have fun in Larry’s bands. And I have an abiding love for the music of Glenn Miller, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, and Maynard Ferguson as a result.

Larry was an unflappable conductor. One of the consequences of having so many bands going was that once in awhile one of those bands would get on stage and perform without having fully worked out all the bugs. I remember one time when another one of his “hey, let’s put on a show!” bands was playing a piece that had a confusing entrance after a long solo section. We all missed the cue to come in, but Larry recovered. Without batting an eye, he simply pointed to the bass player (the only person actually playing by this time) and extended the solo section a little further. We got the cue right the second time around, and as far as I know, the audience never knew anything was amiss.

I’ve reproduced the obit from the Staten Island Advance below the fold. This paragraph really touched me:

News of Mr. Laurenzano’s death inspired impromptu memorials in schools around the Island Friday. At Tottenville High School, where Mr. Laurenzano never taught, the concert choir sang “Route 66” to honor their “Grandfather of Music.” At Staten Island Tech, his band members took it upon themselves to spend the entire school day in the band room, playing his favorite songs, this time without a conductor.

I can’t be there to join in, but I’m humming Jumping with Symphony Sid along with you. Rest in peace, Larry Laurenzano.


Lifelong Staten Islander Laurence Laurenzano, 61, remembered as Staten Island’s own “Music Man,” whose devotion to his work as a music teacher and school administrator touched thousands of lives, died Thursday in Staten Island University Hospital, Ocean Breeze.

Mr. Laurenzano, of Westerleigh, spent his life bringing music to young people, almost single-handedly constructing several reputable, competitive music and performing arts programs in intermediate and high schools in Staten Island and Brooklyn.

He spared no effort for his students, his colleagues said, and taught and conducted with an effervescent and tender spirit that extended far beyond his maestroship.

“He was a giant in his field,” said Dennis Giurici, assistant principal at Staten Island Technical High School, New Dorp, where Mr. Laurenzano was teaching up to his death. “He brought our band students to heights never before seen. He touched the students on an individual basis and made them reach their highest potential.”

News of Mr. Laurenzano’s death inspired impromptu memorials in schools around the Island Friday. At Tottenville High School, where Mr. Laurenzano never taught, the concert choir sang “Route 66” to honor their “Grandfather of Music.” At Staten Island Tech, his band members took it upon themselves to spend the entire school day in the band room, playing his favorite songs, this time without a conductor.

“That’s what he did to everyone,” Giurici said. “He just made things happen, and the kids are so much better for it.”

Maria Palma, a longtime colleague of Mr. Laurenzano’s and district supervisor of the arts for the city Department of Education, said:

DEDICATED TO STUDENTS

“He was unstinting in his love and dedication, and it was always about his students. We have lost a great music educator, a dear friend and a peerless maestro.”

In 1997, Mr. Laurenzano told the Advance he was “the richest man in the world,” because he loved his life, family and job.

Music touched every corner of his life; his three sons worked with him at music festivals throughout their life, while his wife of nearly 40 years, the former Silvia Perrotta, attended every one of his concerts.

“It’s amazing that a man this busy found time to be a wonderful father and loving husband,” his family said yesterday.

Mr. Laurenzano was born in Port Richmond, where he lived for the first 23 years of his life. He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, where he was a member of the school band as well as fullback on the city championship football team.

Shortly after high school, he entered the armed forces, serving in the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard of New York, becoming a sergeant and working actively with the band before he was honorably discharged in 1973.

He met Mrs. Laurenzano while taking trumpet lessons from her father.

Mr. Laurenzano earned a bachelor of science degree in 1969, a master of performance degree in 1971 and a master of education degree in 1972, all from New York University.

STARTED SPRING CONCERTS

He began his music career in the then-new Morris Intermediate School, Brighton Heights, in 1971, building a music program from scratch. He created orchestral, vocal and instrumental programs, tiered the band classes by skill and started the school’s annual tradition of putting on a spring musical.

In 1975, Mr. Laurenzano helped introduce the New York State School Music Association Adjudication Festivals to Staten Island, allowing young musicians to receive critical feedback.

“These festivals have brought credibility and prestige to our schools by giving our students the highest standards with which they can be evaluated,” said David LaMorte, assistant principal at Tottenville High School.

In 1985 he moved on to another then-new school, Paulo Intermediate School in Huguenot, where he was the assistant principal for the performing arts, nudging the music and performing arts programs to their feet.

“He had this great smile on his face, that’s what you remember,” said Mark Hermann, assistant principal at Paulo. “You can’t put his loss into words, when a person touches so many lives.”

In 1991 he moved on to Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, to become its assistant principal. According to Advance archives, there were 23 students and two teachers in the instrumental music program at the time. In under a decade, he turned it into one of the largest magnet musical programs in the city.

NAMED IN HIS HONOR

The school dedicated its auditorium The Laurence Laurenzano Theater for the Arts in his honor.

He retired from teaching in 2001, but the quiet life was not for him. He returned in 2003, to teach music at Staten Island Tech.

Mr. Laurenzano’s esteemed conducting brought him work directing ensembles in 1973 and 1978 at Carnegie Hall. He also arranged and had his orchestra play a portion of the score for Martin Scorcese’s 1973 film “Mean Streets.” He was then musical contractor for street scenes in the 1974 movie, “The Godfather II.”

In addition to Mr. Laurenzano’s work with the Department of Education, he taught hundreds of kids music privately, giving three or four lessons a week over a 30-year span.

Many of Mr. Laurenzano’s former students have gone on to teach music and become administrators in other Staten Island schools.

He was the music director of the Staten Island Community Band for more than 30 years, and directed the Staten Island Borough Wide Band. He was the director of the Big Apple Band of New York City, and a trumpeter with the Staten Island Musicians Society Band from 1964 to 1980, returning to the SIMS band in 1986 as conductor.

Mr. Laurenzano also owned a house and motel in Ocean City, Md., and liked to fish on his boat whenever he could.

“Larry lived life the same way he conducted ensembles and played trumpet, by making every detail perfect, beautiful and memorable,” said JoAnne Nolemi, choral teacher at Tottenville, who counted Mr. Laurenzano as her mentor since her teens.

He was a parishioner at Our Lady Star of the Sea R.C. Church, Huguenot.

Mr. Laurenzano’s family has instituted the Laurence Laurenzano Memorial Fund in his honor.

In addition to his wife, Silvia, Mr. Laurenzano is survived by his sons Robert, Russell and Rocco Laurenzano, and his sisters Lucille Brunette, Marie Trovato and JoAnn Fanticola. The funeral will be Tuesday from the Matthew Funeral Home, Willowbrook, with a mass at 9:45 a.m. in Our Lady Star of the Sea Church. Burial will be in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Grasmere.

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13 Comments

  1. William Hughes says:

    A few thoughts here:

    1. A good teacher is hard to find. This definitely sounds like one of them. My brother had a chorus teacher in high school (Long Island City in the early 1980s) that had an annual gig playing piano with the orchestra in Las Vegas during the Jerry Lewis MDA telethon. He was also loved jazz, which turned my brother into a fan of many of the same individuals you name.

    2. The best definition of a middle school band I’ve ever seen or heard came from an episode of The Cosby Show. There is a medley of Take the A Train and Rhapsody in Blue that left both Duke Ellington and George Gershwin spinning in their graves.

    3. I’m surprised you didn’t mention Thelonius Monk. He’s probably the most famous person ever to get expelled from Stuyvesant. (There is also a very false rumor about Ted Nugent, however, how would you explain the nickname “The Motor City Madman”).

  2. Sue says:

    My junior high band director died last month. He was one of those teachers that all the students liked and felt comfortable talking to about problems. I always felt kind of bad for being so lazy about practicing, but he never applied the guilt. He’d just keep on encouraging me. Mr. C was only in his early 50s when he died, a fact that boggles my mind, since I graduated high school 19 years ago (another fact that boggles my mind). Teachers always seemed old, you know.

    I just feel fortunate to have been one of his students for a few years. A bunch of us were jealous of the kids who got him for 6 straight years when he moved from the junior high to the senior high the year after I graduated. If they have any sense, they’ll be grateful forever.

  3. julia says:

    Oh, man, Watras.

    Not quite as high in my personal pantheon as Caballero, but damn close.

    Remind me to tell you some time about the fateful day when CAballero tried to teach my hygeine class…

  4. William Hughes says:

    Julia,

    You just gave me a visual of Geritol Man (what many of us called Caballero) trying to teach sex ed.

    Paul Reiser (the comedian and Stuy grad of 1973) tells the story of when he stood up in gym class and sang the following to the Hallelujah Chorus:

    Caballero,
    Caballero,
    Caballero, Caballero, you’re a jerk!

  5. julia says:

    William, you have a penetrating mind.

    He tried for about five minutes to frame a complete sentence about the process of reproduction (most of them had the words “a man” or “a woman” and “err” in them) and then told us to read for the rest of the period, which we were grateful for, because he’d long since turned purple and we were starting to get worried.

  6. William Hughes says:

    Julia, are you sure you want to use the word “penetrating” in a discussion of a hygeine /sex ed class? 🙂

    Now that I’ve had my morning coffee (I was writing my first post while having my breakfast coffee at 5:30 AM), I think the name of Geritol Man was actually Cavallero, not Caballero. Regardless, even Paul Reiser referred to him as Geritol Man, which shows that none of us were entirely original.

    To give the non-Stuyvesant High School grads an idea about who we’re talking about, I wouldn’t say he was old, but he was around when Peter Stuyvesant started building his farm in the early 1600s (Stuyvesant High was located in the area of the farm, which is also why there is Stuyvesant Town and Stuyvesant Park in the area.)

  7. julia says:

    Well, certainly not in this context, I wouldn’t.

    I read that about Paul Reiser.

    I also read that he sang it to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus.

    That made me happy.

    You’re right, of course, it was Cavallero, now that I think about it.

  8. Theresa Constantino says:

    I only found out about Mr. L’s death yesterday from one of the receptionists at Fort Hamilton High School. The news of his death left me in shock and I still can’t believe it. I had him for symophonic band. I remember I was always afraid and timid around him, even though he was a great teacher and he was one teacher out of very few that I kind of favored, but still I was always afraid to talk to him. It wasn’t until I think my junior year, The symphonic band was preparing for the adjudication festival and we were supposed to have practice on one particular evening. I had a softball game and I was afraid to say anything because I had heard what he had said to someone else who also was on a sports team. I lied to him and said I couldn’t make it because I had to work and didn’t think I would be able to get out of it. Well, I went and played softball. Unfortunately, I had a little accident, I had been hit with a line drive to the eye. Needless to say, I had a nice shiner. I went to school the next day and I realized I needed to go talk to him. I went to his office, poked my head in and the minute he saw me, his mouth dropped. “What happened to you?,” he asked. It was then that I broke down and apologized for lying to him. He was understanding and told me that I should not have been afraid. I wish I could have known that earlier in school. Mr. Laurenzano was a great man, a good teacher and a good listener. He did help me a great deal and I think that if wasn’t for him I would have never made it out of high school. He loved teaching music and I loved playing music. He will be missed very much!!! When I graduated in ’96 from FHHS, I wrote a letter to him thanking him for being a good teacher, but I wish I still had the chance to tell him again.

  9. assuming no one will see this, i always thought mr Laurenazon hated me. I always thought “why does he embarass me, expect so much??” I probably hated Larry Laurenzano right back – and at the end of the day (year, career, lifetime) that bastard was right. He was the reason I got a music scolorship to college – he was the reason for it all. Sometimes, hate can drive you farther then anything:
    I got a FULL scholorship to college, and i wasn’t that good.
    After music class, everything was easy!!!

    Thanks Mr. Laurenzano, for being so tough!!

  10. janine says:

    I came across this site while googling Mr. Laurenzano, looking for the funeral info. He was my band teacher in high school – I graduated Fort Hamilton in 2002. I was in his last symphonic band. We won Gold that year. He was an amazing teacher and will truly be missed. He is what made me love music. Funny how it seems everyone knows him in some way.

  11. Jennifer Toback says:

    Mr. Laurenzano in one word was inspiration. Inspiration to become a music teacher, to strive for excellence in all that I do. He was a father figure to me. I will never forget him and what he has taught me. I hope his teaching and caring will live on in my students lives. That is Mr. Laurenzano’s legacy that he left to me. A few weeks after his wake, I walked into a music store across from Lincoln Center in Manhattan and purchased my very first conductors baton. Mr. Laurenzano, I hope I make you proud!

  12. Rolf says:

    Good man gone, I was playing hookey one day, and went to see one of his junior high school concerts, 1975 I think, I had ben a french horn player in the first morris “Morning Band”. Anyway he found out I was cutting, dragged me by the neck to Curtis High school Office and let me have it !
    Was a great and inspirational teacher….

  13. […] been extremely fortunate to have had teachers like Laurence Laurenzano and Gene Carinci in my 30+ years as a sax player. To be honest, I have no idea why Dr. Carinci […]