Al Belletto, saxophonist, bandleader and general humanitarian, died on December 26, 2014 at his home in Metairie at the age of 86 after a long illness. Belletto was best known as a modern-jazz saxophonist in a city where modern jazz has always lacked in recognition compared to traditional jazz. He also was known for being the entertainment director for the Playboy Club and mentoring many New Orleans musicians.
Belletto was born January 3, 1928 in New Orleans. He attended Warren Easton High School, and studied music at Loyola University as an undergraduate before getting his masters in music at Louisiana State University. As a teenager, he was already working as a professional musician, playing on Bourbon Street and often backing up the burlesque dancers. He played with Louis Prima, Sharkey Bonano, Wingy Manone and the Dukes of Dixieland. Although he liked traditional jazz, he was attracted to the new modern sounds of bebop, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. There was not much of a scene for this in New Orleans, so he moved to New York.
In New York, Belletto became friends with Mel Torme. Torme, who had first heard him while passing through Biloxi, got him signed to a booking agent, and introduced Belletto to Stan Kenton. Kenton got Belletto signed to Capitol Records, where he recorded The Al Belletto Sextette in 1955, Half and Half in 1956, and Whisper Not in 1957. These recordings were a swinging mix of the instrumental colors and cool sounds of West Coast jazz and the hard bebop of the East Coast. He had a minor hit with the song “Relaxin’” which became the theme to Dick Martin’s jazz program “Moonglow With Martin” on WWL 870-AM radio. Despite good reviews, the band was scuffling by until they met Woody Herman, who absorbed the sextet into his own Thundering Herd and then took them on a U.S. State Department tour of Central and South America in 1957.
By 1961, Belletto was back in New Orleans working as the musical and entertainment director of the Playboy Club. He broke the color line by hiring bassist Richard Payne, an African American, to play the club. When this displeased the local and state authorities, who threatened to sue, Belletto called Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who apparently said, “Let ’em sue us. I’ve got better lawyers than the state of Louisiana.” Belletto continued hiring African-American musicians such as James Black, Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, Nat Perilliat and Earl Turbinton to play at the club. This was not the first time that Belletto had defied the racial barriers of the day. In the ’50s, he had been arrested for playing onstage at the Texas Lounge on Canal Street with Earl Palmer. Johnny Vidacovich, who played with Belletto starting in the late 1960s, recalls, “He went straight up chest to chest with all that bullshit. He was way ahead when it came to the racial game. He stood up for equal rights in black cats getting paid the same amount as the white cats. And he did that by hiring black cats to play the Playboy Club. That was pretty brazen at the time.”
Also in 1968, he was a member of the original New Orleans Jazz Festival board, and he made sure that the policy of the festival was that black musicians would get the same compensation as the white musicians. Belletto was also a board member of the local Musicians Union 174-495, and he was a founding member of the French Quarter Festival. He was Al Hirt’s bandleader in the 1980s, and provided the band for Bob Hope’s 81st birthday TV special.
Belletto also was known for his attitude as well as his playing. Trombonist Rick Trolsen, who played with him for several decades, said, “Al was capital ‘C’ Cool. When he got on the horn, he was all there. He wasn’t fucking around. He put 100 percent into everything he played. And it was always fun. There wasn’t any bullshit onstage. If he felt that something needed to be said, then he would say it, but very diplomatically. He was a consummate professional.”
In addition, Belletto supported musicians off the bandstand. Pianist David Torkanowsky remembers him as being “extremely generous. He mentored me and got me into the Playboy Club when I was underage so I could hear some jazz. And when I went to Boston to go to Berklee, he arranged for me to get a Playboy Gold credit card so that when I was too broke to eat in Boston, I could go to the Playboy Club to get something to eat. He was elegant and soulful and he played a funky, swinging saxophone.” Vidacovich agrees: “The comedians and singers who would come through the Playboy Club traveled the circuit and stayed for two weeks. On our Sunday nights off, Al would have them over for dinner, and his momma, who was pure Italian, made this red gravy—boy! Everybody working the Playboy Clubs knew that when they came to New Orleans, Al Belletto would take care of you.”
Belletto’s final recording would be 1997’s Jazznocracy, recorded at New Orleans Christ Church Cathedral. Other musicians that he mentored and hired included Bill Huntington, Michael Pellera, John Mahoney, Steve Suter, Brian O’Neill and Jeff Albert. As Trolsen says, “We all learned a lot through Al. He was the coach.”
Survivors include his wife Linda, former wife Beverly, son Brad, two grandchildren, two cousins, and fans and friends the world over. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, please donate to the Local 174-495 Altruist Fund, which helps musicians in need.