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Meet our Directors

Joe Donato


As a young child in Vineland, New Jersey, Joe Donato had a keen interest in music which was whole-heartedly fostered by his parents who were Sicilian immigrants.  In 1948, at age 5, when Joe wanted to take accordion lessons, his parents told him that he would study saxophone instead because a neighbor who had just gotten out of the army was available to teach saxophone. Joe took to the saxophone and, by the time he was 8, he was playing with adult musicians at gigs in the Vineland area and joined the American Federation of Musicians Union at age 12.

When Joe was 15, in 9th grade (and, he freely acknowledges, on the verge of flunking out of school), the leader of a touring band, the Honeycombs, heard him play in Vineland and invited Joe to tour with the band. With his parents’ blessing, Joe dropped out of school and went on tour making his debut with the Honeycombs in Pensacola, Florida. For more than ten years, Joe toured primarily in the South with the Honeycombs, the Jazz Bombers, and an assortment of other bands.

In 1968, a music teacher at Houston Baptist College asked Joe to play a piece of music at a public gig and Joe readily confessed to not being able to read music, but offered to play the piece "by ear". The teacher invited Joe (who had earned his GED in Atlanta in 1960) to take music classes at the college which was yet to be accredited. This invitation would turn out to be, in the parlance of Joe’s parents, "Il fare casualmente piacevoli e inattese scoperte." [Pure luck in discovering things you were not looking for.] In 1969, Bill Lee, then Dean of the University of Miami School of Music, was part of an accreditation team visiting Houston Baptist College.  Dean Lee heard Joe play and offered Joe a scholarship to study music at the University of Miami. Joe arrived in Miami on New Year’s Day, 1970, and has lived, studied, performed, and taught in South Florida for four decades.

In the forty years since he arrived in Miami, Joe earned a B.A. in music from the University of Miami and later an M.A. in jazz performance from U.M. But, more significantly, Joe has become widely recognized in the region not only as a saxophonist but as a band leader, composer, lyricist, and one of the most active and innovative musicians working in the field of jazz. Through the years, Joe has performed or jammed with luminaries such as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Jack Jones, and Arturo Sandoval. His two recordings, For Friends and Live at the Tuscany, were collaborations with Randall Dollahon and Brian Murphy, both gifted musicians and close friends. Joe performs as a saxophone soloist with the Jerry Fischer Jazz Orchestra, has toured throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia, and has served as an adjunct faculty member or lecturer at the University of Miami, Miami-Dade College, and Florida International University.

Equally versatile in the entire woodwind family, Joe’s unique performance style and approach to improvisation reflect a wide variety of musical influences and confirm his deep commitment to the varied and profound nature of his musical heritage.