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Call him the consummate showman. A veritable South Florida jazz institution, Joe Donato can be found Thursday nights holding court at Coconut Grove's Tuscany Café, charming the diners with his free-flowing mix of perennial standards such as Duke Ellington's "Caravan" and George Gershwin's "Summertime," as well as innumerable requests from the crowd. Nimbly switching from saxophones to flutes to percussion to a casual Sinatra-like croon, he then takes the time to greet the regulars by name, occasionally sharing a spontaneous shuffle with a delighted onlooker and even acquiescing to an audience member who begs to sit in.
Forget that old adage that insists musicians are ego-crazed neurotics unwilling to give up the spotlight. Donato defies that notion. Sure, he's the bandleader, but that doesn't mean he's not willing to cede the spotlight to his ensemble, sometimes sitting offstage and watching blissfully as the others jam, soaking up the spontaneous weave of melody and improvisation. Often a special guest such as Ira Sullivan or another member of Miami's jazz elite will drop by. Other times it's an unlikely mix of musicians, such as when Matt Kramer, singer of local metalheads Saigon Kick, recently ambled onstage to belt out a bluesy rendition of "House of the Rising Sun"; or, stranger still, when a French tourist took the mike for a stilted read of "New York, New York." Donato takes these unexpected interludes in stride, while admitting they can be somewhat disconcerting. "Sit-ins are definitely iffy," he concedes.
A recent March afternoon finds him playing host of another sort, escorting a guest around the sprawling Twenties-era Moroccan-style Miami Springs domicile that Donato, his wife Kathleen, their two children (daughter Jinji, 16, and son Joseph, 12), Shetland sheepdog Mickey, and a lovebird, appropriately dubbed Lovey, call home. A twisting labyrinth of nooks and crannies, it boasts an amazing array of collectibles, keepsakes, musical instruments, paintings, playbills, and photos, all competing for space with a voluminous mountain of books Donato collects compulsively. "I'm a piler," he concedes, pointing to the stacks of newly acquired volumes awaiting placement on what little shelf space remains.
Barefoot and dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, Donato resembles a bald cherub, or maybe Harry Goldenblatt, Charlotte's second husband on Sex and the City. He may be 62, but he looks practically indistinguishable from photos taken ten or even twenty years ago. Like a mischievous pied piper he walks over to a cabinet bulging with several hundred flutes of every variety, pulls one out, and begins playing it through his nose. It's an amusing, if somewhat disconcerting, performance.
Donato has been performing since the age of five, first on accordion and then, at his parents' insistence, on saxophone. He credits his Uncle Frank, a skilled musician, with arranging his first music lessons. "I was blessed with a good ear," he recalls. "And so in all the years of studies I never learned to read music."
Infatuated by early rock and rollers such as Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Ray Charles, as well as influential jazz players like Cannonball Adderly and Jimmy Dorsey ("mainly because my parents liked him ... and we have the same initials"), Donato opted to make music his career, starting with his first band, Little Joe and the Juveniles, and continuing with the many others that followed.
Donato was lured to Miami in 1970 to study at the University of Miami, where he earned a bachelor's and a master's degree. After finishing school, he stayed in Miami, although he concedes that it might have deprived him of the greater fame he may have gained had he moved to, say, New York or LA. Still he offers no regrets. "I never left Miami because I made it here," he insists. "Early in my career in Miami I achieved some degree of popularity, and that was just great for me."
Thumbing through the bulky scrapbooks he's meticulously maintained, he points to old photos and newspaper clippings showing him performing alongside such notables as Cher, Roberta Flack, Art Blakey, Arturo Sandoval, Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McCrae, Paquito D'Rivera, Doc Severinsen, and Sammy Davis, Jr. But when asked for an anecdote, he mentions an actress, not a musician.
"I met Faye Dunaway at a New Year's gig in Key West," recalls Donato. "I was killing myself to impress her. So after the set, she said, öIs there anything you can'tdo? Would you come to Hollywood and play a party? Can I buy you a drink?' I said, öI'll have the rum punch.' I had already had one, so when the waiter handed me the drink, it slipped out of my hand and splashed all over the beautiful Faye Dunaway," he says, laughing at himself. "No, I didn't get the Hollywood gig."
Despite the celebrity associations, Donato considers his backing band, the Brian Murphy Trio, his real musical mainstay. He has known guitarist Randall Dollahon since 1965. Bassist Matt Bonelli has been with him since 1970. His keyboard player, Brian Murphy, is a ten-year associate, while drummer Danny Burger joined the fold when the group began its Tuscany residency four years ago. In addition, Kathleen Donato frequently performs with the group as a featured vocalist, and her capability as a singer dispels any notion of nepotism. Donato calls her his best friend. They had a first, fleeting encounter when she went to hear him perform in 1970, but, he remarks, "I took such a long intermission that she left." She next saw him perform fifteen years later, but unlike the previous occasion, this time they had an opportunity to meet. They've been married for eighteen years.
Donato's career has been equally durable. He plays approximately 200 performances a year, including the Tuscany gigs, additional concerts, weddings, and bar mitzvahs. He has two albums to his credit, 2000's Joe Donato for Friends and 2001's Joe Donato and the Brian Murphy Trio Live at the Tuscany. And while he claims to have never had a day job, last year he began conducting band classes and teaching jazz appreciation and jazz and pop music history courses at the University of Miami, Miami-Dade Community College, and Florida International University.
Still Donato admits Miami hasn't always had the most fertile jazz environment. "There's very little jazz happening in South Florida," he concedes. "But I'm thankful for what we do have, live and on the radio. Most of all I'm grateful for the fine artists that reside here."
As for fame and fortune, Donato imparts a lesson others have undoubtedly discovered the hard way. "You know how to make a million in jazz?" he asks. "Invest five million."