This is about jazz, so we’ll improvise, starting with Jimmy Owens, the renowned trumpeter, composer and bandleader. In cool threads (red jacket and green scarf), he’s remembering back more than 50 years to his days at the city’s High School of Music & Art, before it merged with the High School of Performing Arts — the “Fame” school — and before they moved together to Lincoln Center — before there really was a Lincoln Center.
“If I got caught playing jazz in the practice room, I got sent down to the dean’s office,” he recalls with a chuckle. He got caught doing that a lot, so, he says, “I had a permanent seat outside Dean Kane’s office.” Many others, like Freddy Lipsius, later of Blood Sweat and Tears, sat with him.
Jazz hadn’t yet come up the river — the Hudson River — to public schools anywhere in the nation, and youth rebelliousness was widely viewed with suspicion, even at the progressive Music & Art, founded in 1936 by Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, who called it “the most hopeful accomplishment of my administration.”
But in 1971, a drummer who had played in the Marine band at President Kennedy’s funeral was recruited to the faculty with the radical mission of turning the dance and stage bands into a jazz ensemble.
“I had no idea what the hell I was talking about,” recalled the percussionist, Justin DiCioccio.
There was a lot of remembering like this going on Monday night as the school, now the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts on Amsterdam Avenue at 65th Street, brought together 37 celebrated jazz alumni and friends for a reunion/benefit concert and jam session to honor Mr. DiCioccio, who went on to lead the jazz program at the school for the next two decades.
He instructed, among others, the drummer Kenny Washington, the clarinetist Don Byron, the guitarist Bobby Broom, the bassist Marcus Miller and the vibraphonist Mark Sherman, all of whom, with several dozen others, flocked in from around the country to play for their former teacher.
The guitarist John Pizzarelli, who has a daughter at the school, joined the jam fest, along with the pianist Arturo O’Farrill, also a parent of a Music & Art student, and the Cuban-born, nine-Grammy-winning, alto saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera.
Mingling with fellow musicians at a preconcert dinner of kale, chicken and pasta salad in the school cafeteria, Mr. Washington (class of 1976) recalled the day at school that he faced a sheet of music and quailed. “I took my sticks out and saw bars of 4/4 to 3/4 to 5/8 to 3/16 and I looked at that and my eyes bugged out,” he said. “I put my sticks away,” he told Mr. DiCioccio. “I can’t play this.”
“He says: ‘You can learn how to play this. If you couldn’t play it, you wouldn’t be here.’” The next day, Mr. Washington said, Mr. DiCioccio (pronounced de-CHO-chee-oh) dropped a book on his desk, Charley Wilcoxon’s “Modern Rudimental Swing Solos” for drums. “Don’t worry,” Mr. DiCioccio told him. “I’ll teach you.” It changed his life, he said.
From the stage, the bassist Mr. Miller, in a black gaucho hat, also hailed Mr. DiCioccio as someone who saved lives as surely as any pediatric surgeon. “He would change trajectories,” he said. “ ‘Stead of being here,” — he held a hand waist-high — “you’d be here,” moving his hand above his head.
The man who brought Mr. DiCioccio to Music & Art was also there, Gabriel Kosakoff, 86, the former head of the instrumental music department.
Mr. DiCioccio came to the school as a part-time percussion teacher in 1971. He had grown up in Buffalo, attended the Eastman School of Music and, to escape the Vietnam draft — “I didn’t want to kill people” — signed up for an opening on the White House Marine band, The President’s Own.
He ended up in the Kennedy funeral cortege in 1963. “In the pictures with the riderless horse, the first snare drummer, that’s me,” he said. He stayed to play for President Lyndon B. Johnson and then made his way to New York to play jazz.
When Mr. Kosakoff sought to hire him full time, he balked. “I’m a player, not a teacher,” he said. What would it take to change his mind? “Off the top of my head, I said, ‘Let’s start a jazz band,’” Mr. DiCioccio recalled. Mr. Kosakoff was taken aback. “It’s not a college,” he said.
The upstart would not be put off. “I thought you said this was a specialized high school for special students,” Mr. DeCioccio replied. “You should do something special.”