Rocco Barbato Saxophonist

Rocco Barbato


    by: Michael Gudbaur

"The lure of Las Vegas is a strong one. Each year, millions are drawn to this desert city for the usual assortment of reasons. Some seek entertainment; others hope to find their fortunes in the casinos; most come simply to lose themselves in the mere mention of "Vegas" invokes.

But for saxophonist Rocco Barbato, the lure of Las Vegas was quite the opposite.  Vegas meant work, the opportunity to share the music and the craft he's spent nearly 25 years perfecting. 

"Las Vegas is open 24 hours a day seven days a week," notes Rocco, resting up after a grueling nine-day stretch of working three headline shows nightly at the perdition Bellagio Hotel, located at the center of the famous Las Vegas strip. "The lounges are always open, too.  I saw a potential for work there that even New York and Los Angeles didn't have.  I don't think there's anywhere in the world that offers the same scenario."  Then he adds, "You just have to be able to survive the 120-degree heat!"

The triple-digit late July desert furnace is still a sufficiently bizarre phenomenon to elicit the disbelieving remark from Rocco, though he's lived and wrked in Las Vegas fro more than five years.  Haling from upstate New York, he no doubt remembers too well that region's punishing winter cold and brutal blizzards.

Rocco also remembers gatherings of his large Italian family at his home in Syracuse, New York, where his uncles would often play their mandolins and guitars and sing traditional melodies.  Hearing his mother's fine singing voice harmonizing to church hymns on Sunday mornings also helped plant a seed deeply in Rocco's psyche, laying the ground work of a subconscious musical training. 

When Rocco was eight his father brought home a gift that would prove to be a turning point in a boy's life. "My father was a mason by trade and owns a construction company back in Syracuse." Rocco say. "He was doing a job for a school band director, who asked him if he had kids and whether they like music."

When the job was finished, Mr. Barbato came home with a trumpet and a saxophone (compliments of the band director) and presented them to Rocco and his brother. "Because he was older, "Rocco recalls, "my brother got to pick first, and he chose the trumpet because, according to him, it had less keys."

But the kids brother was glad, as he felt an instant attraction to the saxophone. Once the instrument was in his hands, it didn't take Rocco long to figure out where to place fingers and get a sound out of the reed.  "By the end of the night, I'd figured out how to play 'Happy Birthday' because it also happened to be my father's birthday."

Rocco recalls the gratitude and obligation he felt as the recipient of the band director's generosity. "To a lower-middle-class family, those instruments were like bringing homed gold. We were very appreciative."

The young saxophonist honed his technique early, at first mimicking the Boots Randolph solos he heard in his Godfather's eight track tape player.  Later influences included Chris Vadala, with Chuck Mangione Band, an the late Grove Washington Jr., for whom Rocco later had the honor of opening at the Upstate Jazz Festival in 1992.

By middle school, Rocco had begun formal training and immersed himself in music as much as possible. "Bandwas definitely my most serious class." he admits.  When he reached high school, Rocco naturally joinedconecert band and jazz ensemble., but wished to play in a small group setting.  Taking the initiative, he created a combo that routinely took top honors at state and regional level contests.

"I was always fortunate, even in high school, to have good musicians around me," says Rocco. "Upstate New York has produced a ton of great players."

Also while in high school, Rocco studied with sax guru Gerald Santy, who in turn had studied with the famous Joe Allard.  It was then, 1986-1987, that Rocco began making himself known and emerged on the local scene.

"I put groups together, and we'd go out and play dances and clubs dates." he recalls. "The first club date I ever played was awful - I had to call my father because the owner wasn't going to pay us."

Another turning point came when Rocco befriended professional bassist Gerald Upson, "Gerald had played with legends like Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb.  He took me under his wing and introduced me to the music of Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, who is still on of my favorites." Soon after graduation, Rocco hi the straight ahead jazz club circuit, sharing the stage with top musicians. Through Santy, Rocco learned of the now defunct Dick Grove School of Music in Los Angeles.  He enrolled, intrigued by the school's "music only" curriculum. "I was at Dick Grove at the right time," says Rocco. "There were guys teaching there like Rob McConnell, Peter Erskine, Ernie Watts, and Lanny Morgan and Med Flory from Supersax.  It was an incredible environment to learn in," Roccoo's talent flourished at the school, where he graduated with top honors. And although he was prepared musically for professional performance, he found himself decidedly unprepared for what he calls "the politics of the music industry."

"I've always been a musician," he says "and I just wanted to play the saxophone as best I could." Instead, he was forced to place music performance on the back burner and put on his business suit as a self-promoter. "I ended up doing almost everything," he recalls. "I put my own album together; I put my own product together to sell myself."

Although he admits that he was not fond of the "business" aspect of the music business, his strategy paid off.  It wasn't long before he was hitting the national jazz circuit, sharing the stage with jazz artists like Grover Washington, as well as nationally known pop acts like Rick Springfield, Kansas, Dr. John , and Gladys Knight. "But I would never have got to that point if I hadn't done the legwork myself."

With his career taking off, Rocco's reluctant butyrate business sense told him to put down roots in a city where he could work regularliy, gain visibility and establish a launching pad for even bigger opportunities.  He knew, however, that he'd be starting from square one in Vegas.

"I knew that I come here as a nobody, regardless of where I'd played or who I'd shared the stage with." he states with his characteristic frankness. "The point is, you're going into a whole new marketing scheme in Las Vegas, and you've got to play their game. One of the first things they want to do is see- they want the visual and the guys who are willing to work."

Rocco perfectly fit the Vegas bill for visual appeal, and his energietic playing style was just what audiences expected. It wasn't long before he was finding as much work as he could handle on "The Strip."

But make no mistake; Rocco Barbato, he music comes first. "people ask me if I choreograph those moves, if they're staged. I'm not even really ware that I'm doing it.  What matters to me is that I'm getting the music across."

Another key to Rocco's success in Las Vegas is his chameleon like versatility. "Im covering a lot of ground, playing a lot of styles because I'm on the Strip," he says. "I'm playing rhythm and blues, I'm playing bebop, I'm playing contemporary jazz-whatever it takes to keep the audience in their seats."

He admits, "My passion is traditional jazz but I've geared myself to playing different styles so I can work and be an asset to different artists who are looking for a player who can perform in a particular style.  My job is to play any style demanded of me."

Rocco Barbato does his job well, and he's pleased to be paid well for his efforts. But he makes it clear that his love for music is what drives him. "I do my craft and play my instrument through spirituality. I'm thankful on a daily basis for what I have, and I try to be humble about it. Being a working musician has enabled me to support a family. It's a great place for anyone to live and work - as long as you don't put your paycheck back in the casino. when work is over, the first thing I do is go home to my family.  The last thing on my mind is the Stip."

Rocco is contemplating a project intended to spare young saxophonists from the frustration he's experienced with technique and equipment. "I envision that within the next half-decade. I'll have several books on conditioning reeds, what to look for in a mouthpiece or a saxophone, and so forth."

He continues, "Playing five nights a week and having to hit that note night after night after night, you've got to know what's involved with the reed, or the baffle on the mouthpiece. You're forced to know this stuff to make your playing consistent."

Perhaps Rocco will include an instruction manual on dealing with the business of music, hard lessons he's learned on his own. "But no matter what's going on around you," he stresses, "and no matter who's trying to step on your back to get above you, when your performing, your music is speaking.  That's the grace I've learned about in order to stay invloved in this business. Regardless of the politics and the business, the music speaks clearly.  And that's the gift."