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Saxophonist Frank Catalano's Confidence Won Mom Over

Frank Catalano and Jimmy Chamberlain
Saxophonist Frank Catalano and Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain play The Castle Theater in Bloomington Saturday night.

Chicago native Frank Catalano got his big music break at age 18 when he signed on to Delmark Records.

He said label founder Bob Koester — who passed away last week — called him a “fiery” saxophonist and jumped at the chance to sign him. Ahead of his show with Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain this Saturday in Bloomington, he said he had much more trouble convincing his mother that music was a viable career path.

“My mom would have been totally happy if I was not a musician,” said Catalano. “And while she is now very proud of me and supportive, it's kind of like the opposite.”

In those teen years, Catalano was as resourceful in lobbying his mother as he was impressing older players with his talent. He remembers talking his mother into taking him to see legendary jazz organist Charles Earland as he was not old enough to get into the venue by himself.

“And she was cool with it for a minute,” said Catalano. “But I could just tell that once she realized I was going to be hanging out until four or five in the morning, and be in smoky clubs, she was just not very excited about that career path.”

As a rising Chicago talent, he said he was getting many playing and recording opportunities, but they evaporated when mom wouldn’t sign off on them for the pre-18-year-old.

“So, Bob (Koester) actually approached me when I was 17. And said, 'We'll have to wait till you're 18,'" said Catalano.

When he did eventually sign, he said mom was both excited and mad, but eventually came around.

“But if Delmark hadn't been here in Chicago, if I would have had to have flown out to New York or another city to sign this stuff, and it would have never happened,” said Catalano. "I thought the only way that I for sure was going to convince my mom and everybody to kind of leave me alone and let me pursue my music was if I had a solo recording contract that I was being paid for.”

It's not unusual for parents to raise eyebrows when children express interest in the shark-infested odd-hours music business. So, what drove him during that time to follow the dream and eventually prove to mom that he was right?

“Well, it's just so weird, because a couple years prior to this, I had had part of my finger cut off and re-attached in a bad accident. And I think my mom thought at this point, ‘Well, Frank, of course, is done playing the saxophone in a professional sort of way.’ She was fine if it was just a hobby once in a while. But I remember when I got a bunch of music scholarship offers … Berkeley in Boston, USC … DePaul here in Chicago, where I ended up going and I had a great time. She was all excited, like, ‘Wow, you got a full scholarship, that's great. But instead of going for music, maybe you could go for law or to be a doctor.’ I'm like, ‘No, I want to be a saxophone player. And it's a music scholarship. So, you can't say ‘sure, I'll take the music scholarship, but by the way, you can put me into DePaul's law school?’” he chuckled.

“So, while I know that she means well, some of her ideas just were not based in facts or reality.”

Catalano met Jimmy Chamberlin through a mutual acquaintance. They quickly found through jamming and other playing that they had a strong connection despite being very different personalities. He said he couldn’t put a finger on describing that connection other than they “feel time” in the same way.

“Is that somebody instead of supporting the musical phrase that you're putting out while improvising … because so much music that I do is probably 90-95% improvised, I need people around me that get that. Even if we just do some sax and drum duels stuff, I've always felt like we're totally on the same page. That doesn't always mean that the other person is playing what you're hoping they'll play or expecting them to play. But if you're open to whatever they do, it should be a cool springboard and kind of like something to vibe off of and get more ideas off of. In addition to kind of like a crazy cosmic thing that I think we have going together, there is the fact that the foundation of what we love in music, we feel the time in the pulse in the music in the same way,” said Catalano.

Frank Catalano and Jimmy Chamberlain play The Castle Theatre in Bloomington Saturday night.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.
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