Faces of the Valley: Saxophonist Don Aliquo is still hitting the high notes as a jazz performer at 93

Don Aliquo doesn’t skip a beat when asked to share his formula for a musical career that began singing around the piano as a toddler and shows few signs of slowing down at 93.

“What is my secret? Those 11 steps in front of that door and that,” he says, tapping the neck of the vintage Selmer saxophone by his side.

The retired Highlands High School music teacher said walking up and down the stairs to his basement music studio kept him limber, while hours of rehearsing intricate jazz scores allowed him to pump the lungs, nimble fingers and sharp mind.

While the music studio in his Lower Burrell home is filled with snapshots, newspaper clippings and posters chronicling the many people and places he encountered as a performer, the small room did not intended to preserve the past.

The hours Aliquo spends rehearsing keeps him tuned to a regular schedule of performances, which includes weekly concerts at the 3rd Street Gallery at Carnegie as well as shows throughout the region.

“When I started teaching at Highlands in 1956, I didn’t put my horn in the case and forgot about it,” Aliquo said. “I played every chance I could. I felt it made me a better teacher because I was able to share that experience with the kids.

“If you’re going to ask the kids to play, then you better play for them. I think it’s one of the best tools you can have as a music teacher,” he said.

The son of Sicilian immigrants, Aliquo grew up in Johnstown during the Big Band era and was heavily influenced by listening outside a venue when orchestras led by Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw came together. produced in the city.

“My sister played the piano, and my family and neighbors sang for hours,” Aliquo said. “I started playing as a singer when I was 13 and started getting recognition. Then I started taking clarinet and then saxophone, which I really fell in love with.

In the years after graduating from high school, Aliquo set about practicing music for six hours a day in preparation for an audition for the Walter Reed Army Band, which he passed.

“Until I made the decision to pursue a career in music, my dedication to rehearsal was rather sporadic,” he said. “But once I decided on the music, I gave it my all and started putting in the time and the work I needed.”

Aliquo said living in the Washington, D.C. area while in the military provided him with a wide range of musical experiences.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “It gave me the chance to take lessons from some of the best musicians in the military and play consistently at all levels.”

He said two performances over the course of a weekend during this period epitomized just how varied the experience could be.

“I went from playing for President Truman’s second inauguration in one night to playing a private show with a band for a dance at a small place in a poor section of Chevy Chase (Md.).”

After leaving the military, Aliquo continued to perform with several bands and as a “travelling” musician, taking gigs with touring national artists who frequently hired local musicians for their shows.

He used the GI Bill to study music at what is now Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Aliquo said he decided to get into teaching after a summer touring East Coast beach towns with an orchestra.

“We ended up doing shows that really didn’t interest me,” he said. “We were hired as a jazz band, but those were the days when Bill Halley and rock ‘n’ roll hit like a ton of bricks, so we had to do it. It was a great experience, but it wasn’t the music I wanted to play.

Although Aliquo admits that he did not have a vocation to teach like so many others in the profession, he quickly learned that what he had could be used as a valuable teaching tool.

“I was able to relate many of the experiences I had to my teaching in a way that gave children a quality musical education,” he said.

And rather than ignoring the contemporary music his students often preferred, Aliquo found ways to broaden what they listened to by helping them explore connections to different styles and forms.

“I had a few kids in class who were really interested in the avant-garde band King Crimson,” he said. “So I collected a bunch of John Coltrane records to play for them so they could compare what they were hearing to what they were listening to.”

Aliquo retired from Highlands in 1992 after 37 years of teaching in the district.

He said his greatest achievement as a teacher was passing on his musical knowledge to his son, Don Aliquo Jr., who teaches music at Middle Tennessee State University and is a respected jazz performer in the music scene. of Nashville.

“I used to teach him, but now he can teach me,” Aliquo said of his son. “I’m proud of him but also a bit jealous of his quality.”

Aliquo, who moves a little slower than before but has no significant physical ailments, said he couldn’t imagine hanging up his horn.

“Playing music and acting has always been such an important part of my life,” he said. “And I’m going to do it for as long as I can and there are people who want to listen.”

For more information on Aliquo’s upcoming performances, visit her Facebook page at facebook.com/don.aliquo.1.

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Tony at 724-772-6368, [email protected] or via Twitter .

Comments are closed.