The lifetime musical passion of ‘Mr. Joe’

Oswego impresario Tony "Mr. Joe" Joseph is pictured above practicing his craft. The Rome, NY native has been a Port City music icon for decades, writes John Sullivan.

“Music fills the soul and enlivens the spirit.”

I don’t know where that quote came from. It might even be original, but I do know one thing: it’s true. When it comes to music, and Oswego, several people come to mind, some of whom I have already written about. Some are still on my to do list. One such person who is high on that list is Tony Joseph.

Joseph is not only a band leader to beat the band, he is a clarinet player par extraordinaire, ala Pete Fountain. He is also an educator who enthusiastically embraced and inspired his students over several decades as an instrumental music teacher at Oswego High School.

The high school jazz band was his creation and he breathed new life into the instrumental music program locally that only a passionate Italian hailing from Rome, New York, could do.

Mr. Joe, as his students fondly called him, could be a tough taskmaster at times but he was always in search of the better performance he knew his students were capable of. His students adored him and gave him their all, performance-wise, and students who learn to play musical instruments in school do better in science, math, and almost every other subject.

Mr. Joe retired several years ago, but continues to be active in the central New York music scene playing several gigs a year at venues in Oswego and elsewhere. Whenever he is on the bill, the joint is jumpin’ and seats are hard to find.

Tony and his wife Kathy, who worked in the City Treasurer’s office for many years, came to a Oswego from Rome after college. He has sported a mustache as long as I have known him, but it has never interfered with his ability to fill the pipes he plays with vigor. He maintains the facial hair today, maybe in part because the hair on top of his head is getting a bit thinner. His music, however, only continues to thicken.

One of my fondest memories involving Mr. Joe was when he brought the OHS Jazz band to Breitbeck Park to play at Harborfest live on four cutouts on NBC’s “TODAY” with Willard Scott. It was at 7:30 a.m. on a bright sunny day and as the band played, the tall ships sailed by in the background at the northeast corner of the park, while Scott proclaimed Oswego one of the most beautiful cities in the USA.

That was a pretty proud moment in his career , I am sure.

I have lots of other warm and fuzzy moments that come to mind connected to Tony, including when my daughter, Elizabeth, was selected as vocalist to accompany the band’s annual concert program. She sang the venerable Gershwin tune “Someone to watch over me” and my spine still tingles to that memory.

My daughter, Danielle, was also featured saxophonist on several numbers and there is just something about Tony that brings out the best in both old and young. You can’t help but tap your toes and sing along.

After graduating Rome Free Academy, Tony proceeded to hone his musical and teaching skills at Onondaga Community College and Fredonia State, an acclaimed SUNY music school, while completing graduate degrees at Binghamton and SUNY Oswego. He taught in Schenectady and Endwell before migrating north to Oswego in 1980, retiring in 2006.

His was a stellar career marked by much success and he has inspired a whole host of musicians to carry on the torch. Tony Joe is and will always be an Oswego Musical institution. Rome’s loss was definitely our gain. Here’s to many more years of singin’ and swingin’.

John T. Sullivan is a former Oswego Mayor and the author of three books, “Forks In The Road” parts I and II and an autobiography “Pee Not Your Pants — Memoirs of a small time mayor with big time ideas,” available locally in the river’s end bookstore and online.  His column appears exclusively in The Palladium-Times on the first Monday of each month.

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