by Amber Holst
Source:North Shore Magazine
If you ask 28-year-old jazz prodigy Frank Catalano, the youngest saxophonist ever voted into the “Downbeat Critics Poll,” when he knew he was going to dedicate his life to the sax, he’ll tell you it was at age 17, shortly after he got himself kicked out of the Kenilworth Country Club.
This was, of course, before Catalano performed for audiences as Far away as China and recorded his fifth album, They Mighty Burner, which debuted at No.11 on Billboard’s Top Jazz charts last May.
The “Kenilworth Club incident” occurred in 1996. A buddy Catalano had met – where else but at jazz camp – hooked him up with a wedding gig at the Club, which is where he received a fateful tap on the shoulder.
“I was playing a famous samba, and in the middle of my solo, this guy comes up on stage and taps me on the shoulder,” Catalano says. “It’s not like I was playing in the corner somewhere; I was on stage, It freaked me out.”
Catalano says he tends to play with his eyes closed, so when he realized it wasn’t one of his band mates it threw him for a loop. When the man did it a second time, Catalano, in the throes of his solo, lost it. “The guy had the nerve to ask me to play a samba – in the middle of my performing a samba,” he says. “I was 17 and had a shorter fuse back then and basically told him if he did it again I’d toss him off the stage. Literally.” Needless to say Catalano was asked by security to “mellow out” and never played another gig at the Club.
“I don’t have a bad vibe about the place,” he says now. “I just think it’s hilarious. That’s the goofy thing about music, you need those Kenilworth experiences to really teach you how to handle yourself on stage. I’ve come a long way”. A long way indeed, considering that Catalano has already jammed with Charles Earland. Ira Sullivan, Tony Bennett and David Sanborn.
But his earliest gigs were on the North Shore. The buddy he met at camp, Mark Sommers, lived with his parents in Lake Forest, and since most of Catalano’s sets were in that area, he regularly crashed there, making it his home base. “At the time, my Mom lived out in Hanover Park, and I just didn’t feel like commuting,” he says.” So I sort of adopted the North Shore as my home.
What people don’t realize, says Catalano, is that he’s been playing pretty much full-time since he was 14, after buying his first sax, a Selmer Mark VI, with money he’d scraped together from neighborhood lawn-mower duties. “And while my coffeehouse gigs at Newport Coffeehouse in Bannockburn didn’t pay much,” he says, “it was the exposure and practice I gained during that time that really alowed me to hone my craft” and mend his wounds.
At 16, hours before a flight at O’Hare and a scheduled concert at the Grammys, Catalano cut off his middle finger while trying to fix the engine of his ’72 Beettlee. “Yeah, not good for a sax player.” he jokes.
After reconstructive surgery, Catalano had to re-learn his craft, but by 19, he was signed by the prestigious Delmark label and recorded his first solo album, Cut It Out. Now both a Yamaha and Vandoren spokesperson, Catalano hosts clinics throughout the country and has played for such commercial bigwigs as Volkswagen, Land Rover and Motorola. Despite his hectic schedule, Catalano still finds time to run the after-school jazz program at the Off the Street Club in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood and is the artist in residence at College of Lake County, teaching jazz and, of course, a few country club sambas.