To squeeze into Joe Romano’s Ashland garage, I had to dodge an Everlast punching bag hanging from the ceiling. Joe pounds on it sometimes to keep in shape. (He doesn’t box, by the way, or hit anything that might hit back. A conservatory-trained trumpet player, he won’t risk the lip that helped win him win gold and platinum records.)
The left side of Joe’s garage is where he composes and records music. The right side is where he makes art. Somewhere in there, he’s been researching the musicology of the era of American revolutionary Thomas Paine. Joe’s composing incidental music for a one-man show, “The Life of Thomas Paine” that opens in Seattle this month.
So when I saw this bespectacled guy with a less-pepper-than-salt close-cropped beard and warm smile wearing a shockingly plain red baseball cap, it struck me that such a logo-less cap might be the defining uniform for a guy like him: a post-rapture Renaissance man.
Not that Joe sees himself that way, though he continues to enjoy parallel careers in art and music, and he’s been composing for theatre and films for decades. In his mirror, Joe is just a “free spirit” and a guy who’s been blessed to share a home with his beloved wife, playwright Lisa Loomer, and their 13 year-old son Marcello.
Engaging Joe to talk about his music is to invoke the memory of his mentor, brass instructor Donald “Doc” Reinhardt, whose simple wood-frame black and white photo remains a prize possession.
At age 14, Joe, a suburban Philadelphia kid with a musician father, attended a high school clinic by Reinhardt and Joe knew he had to have more. He got on the phone to ask for a private lesson.
“First of all, Doc said to me, ‘I’m booked solid, I’ve got a waiting list of several years and, besides, I only teach professionals. Thank you.’ Click.”
Joe then called again: “‘Yeah, it’s me,’ I said. ‘Is there any way I can mow your lawn or shovel snow for a lesson or two?’
“‘No.’” To dull his desire, Reinhardt also reminded the boy that he charged $50 an hour.
“I told him I could probably scrape together 50 bucks maybe in a year or a year and a half,” says Joe.
“He said, ‘You’re such a pain in the ass. Okay, here’s what you can do…’”
Reinhardt allowed Joe to cover last-minute cancellations. “‘But you have to be ready.’”
Receiving that first call, Joe rushed headlong into a cloud of Reinhardt’s cigar smoke and into the challenge of his life: “He said to me, ‘I don’t want you wasting my time. You’re lucky to be studying on someone else’s dime, so don’t screw up. If you want to be a trumpet player, now’s the time to make that decision.’”
When Joe was ready for college, Reinhardt helped him enroll in Combs Broad Street Conservatory of Music where his mentor was on the faculty.
Even then, one creative passion was hardly enough for Joe. “On the way to Combs, I would pass by this artist’s studio almost every day,” says Joe. “I would stand outside the picture window and see the artwork and the easel and sometimes the African-American artist, Benjamin Britt.
“One day, I decided to go in and introduce myself.”
Joe became a regular visitor, often doing his school exercises on Britt’s piano. “Then one day out of the blue, he looked at me and said, ‘You want to paint, don’t you? You’re eyes are always on me; you’re studying what I do.’
“I told him no, that I was just admiring what he did.”
“He ripped a sheet of paper from a tablet, said, ‘Here are some brushes and a pallet knife. Why don’t you make a picture.’
“I said I didn’t have any ideas.”
For inspiration, with Britt’s coaxing, Joe opened one of his music books to a picture of Igor Stravinsky and his The Soldier’s Tale.
“I said, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t know where to begin.’ He said, ‘I want to see what you can do,” and he walked away.” Britt was impressed and encouraged him to continue. (The painting, which hardly looks like the work of a first-timer, is still proudly hanging in Joe’s home.)
Though aspiring to be jazz man—and perhaps make his living as a studio musician—Joe couldn’t refuse a job as player and musical director with The Checkmates Ltd., joining them in 1969 for their gig at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. The group’s one hit record that year was Black Pearl.
When he wasn’t on stage, Joe was painting in his hotel room. By 1974, his work began finding its way onto gallery walls. In 1989, after 19 of 30 pieces assembled for a private showing sold on the first day, Joe’s career took off.
While he was advised he could make more money sticking to one style, Joe prefers to follow his eclectic inclination. Evidence is all over the garage. A whimsical abstract acrylic called The Voyeur shares space with a collage of circus images, a hand-painted painted papier-mâché rabbit and a diorama from a series called Homies celebrating the Chicano culture. Tucked in most of dozens of tiny cubbies are street-character figurines set against a backdrop of Mexican loteria cards.
“I was at the Dollar Tree store five years ago with my son and I saw a machine with these toys,” says Joe. “It was like a big gum machine.” After buying one of these toys for 50 cents, he got 10 dollars in quarters and emptied out the machine with Marcello looking on with understandable embarrassment. “Here I was, then, a 60-year-old man then getting as many as I can just because I just think they’re cool.”
Once he got his hands on cabinet drawers that once served to store metal printer’s type, the artistic possibilities revealed themselves.
“I would stay up all night long gluing and pasting,” Joe says smiling. “My wife said it was starting to get really weird.”
Though most of Joe’s work is shown primarily in Los Angeles galleries—he recently wrapped up a show at the Bohemia Gallery on A Street—you can see his art at his web site: http://joeromano-joeromanoartcom.blogspot.com.