Music has always been part of Ron Di Lauro’s life. You can hear it when he plays his trumpet, whether it’s jazz, pop, traditional Italian or classical. The tone is warm, slightly sweet, and the mix of skill and passion is immediately evident.
I first saw him perform as the lead trumpet with the Vic Vogel Big Band in 1980; he has impressed fans and fellow musicians alike, and gone on to become the first-call trumpet player in and around this city. He also has made his mark as a pedagogue at Université de Montréal and McGill.
In recognition of Di Lauro’s contribution as leader and band member in countless groups, the Montreal International Jazz Festival named him this year’s winner of its coveted Oscar Peterson Award for outstanding contributions to jazz in Canada and the quality of his art.
And on July 5, he leads a quintet in a program based on the music of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, the groundbreaking 1959 Columbia recording and best-selling jazz recording of all time. Still popular, it has been hugely influential on jazz and music in general.
Di Lauro’s father, Migo, would have been proud, but not that surprised. He played the trumpet, banjo and mandolin and taught young Ron to play by ear before he could read notes.
“He taught me how to play a few Italian songs on mandolin—left-handed, so I played the instrument upside down,” Di Lauro recalled in a recent interview.
The family first in Ville Émard, then Montreal North, where Di Lauro picked up the bugle at Pius IX High School to play the Habanera aria in its production of Bizet’s Carmen.
“My father taught me the basics of trumpet at home, so when I was playing one of the smugglers in the play, I offered to play the bugle part as well.”
Once he set aside his dream of becoming a doctor and aimed to be a professional musician, his father ensured young Di Lauro would get the best possible training.
“At Champlain College, I studied social sciences and took private trumpet lessons with Barbara Maxedon Hunter at the Conservatoire, considered among the best in the world. He switched to the joint program with McGill at Marianopolis College, focusing on classical, earning a master’s degree in wind band conducting.
“Jazz was just something I took an interest in at home—I listened to everything but classical at home. My father was a big Harry James fan, Al Hirt was one of my idols. I listened to Chuck Mangione.”
Di Lauro’s online bio says he picked up techniques from the trumpet and flugelhorn greats: Freddie Hubbard for vocabulary, Al Hirt for sound and phrasing, and Canadian Guido Basso for passion and style.
“My father was not a fan of bebop and Charlie Parker. He warned me not to play that music because these guys were ‘all on drugs’ when they played that music,” Di Lauro said with a chuckle.
Di Lauro told of his own battle with substance abuse. “I had my demons for a while, and I’m 15½ years sober, and all these wonderful things are happening in my life with sobriety. I want people to know that there’s a way out.”
Di Lauro got his first degree in classical trumpet at McGill’s School of Music, but came second in auditions for the first trumpet chair in the Quebec Symphony Orchestra.“I had some chop problems, so I had to take a couple of years to reset my chops. That’s when I developed a real interest in playing jazz.”
And the timing was good, coinciding with the jazz revival and start of the Montreal Jazz Festival in 1980, when Di Lauro played with the Vogel band. He first started with Vogel during the 1979 Offenbach tour.
He rejected his father’s counsel and “really developed an affinity for Miles, the sensitiveness he had in his chops, and with the Harmon mute [that alters the trumpet’s sound].”
Which brings us to the project he’ll be leading on the festival’s last night with his reprise of Kind of Blue—the modal jazz album that has sold more than 2 million units. It is also prominent on most top 10 and desert-island lists.
Di Lauro has played with a huge list of jazz and pop stars: With Vogel’s band, he played alongside trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard, saxophonists Zoot Simms and Phil Woods, and Tony Bennett. As a sideman, he gigged, among others, with guitarist John Scofield, Aretha Franklin—“this will be the sixth time with Aretha”—and trumpeter Chris Botti.
“I had a chance to spend a whole hour with Freddie Hubbard, my ultimate idol.”
Di Lauro returns to the festival in July with his Kind of Blue project and tribute to Miles, with Jean-Pierre Zanella and André Leroux (saxophones), Michel Donato (bass), Pierre Leduc (piano), Richard Provençal (drums).
“I found sheet music that was a transcription of the entire album. We sight-read through the entire transcription so we would get an exact representation of the album, of course doing our own soloing.”
Should jazz be new and spontaneous or is there room for repertoire? “No critic or musicologist has the right to be above music and say what is right or wrong about music.”
“I’ll play new, free, creative music any day, but I’ll also play the old standards any day as well, because I love to play.”
“We have an exact routing, but our soloing is spontaneous, while respecting the chord changes. I’ll come out and play as Ron Di Lauro, but at the same time I’ll try to stay in the Miles spirit.”