“You would think I was a star!” exclaimed the 97-year-old saxophonist, Pat DeRosa. Still surprised over the attention he receives, the Montauk resident has performed with many musical legends in venues across the country and continues to entertain audiences locally, including an upcoming performance at the East Hampton Chamber of Commerce street fair on Saturday, May 11.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1921. When he was 12 years old, his mother, Annie, noticed that he had a genuine interest in music. “We lived on Carroll Street,” said DeRosa. “It wasn’t far from the Bowery. She took me to the Bowery and bought me an alto saxophone.”
DeRosa explained, “I wanted the saxophone because I liked the way it looked and I liked the sound of it.” He learned to play it by taking lessons in school.
“I remember when I brought my saxophone to school. I was so proud,” DeRosa said with a huge smile.
In addition, although DeRosa recalls that his parents did not have much money, his mother still found someone to give him outside music lessons. “He wasn’t a saxophonist, he was a drummer, but he was a musician and it was someone to help get him started,” indicated DeRosa’s daughter, Patricia. DeRosa’s mother even turned their basement into a studio to provide a spot for the lessons and practicing.
Having moved from Brooklyn to Huntington when he was young, DeRosa attended school in the district and graduated from Huntington High School in 1940. He landed a job at Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation in Bethpage where he learned to assemble parts for aircrafts. With the onset of World War II, it wasn’t long before DeRosa was drafted into the Army Air Force and was stationed in Greensboro, NC. A test of his abilities revealed his exceptional hearing. As a result, he was designated to become a radio operator decoding Morse code aboard aircraft flying strategic missions overseas.
Uncertain how it really came to pass, DeRosa had the opportunity to audition for the army band. “I don’t know how I did it, but I got into the band. It was the Glenn Miller Band and I believe it was conducted by Tex Beneke. They would send us out to play at dances to keep up the morale of the troops. It was great. All the young girls would come to the dances from Greensboro and I’d be up there playing all night. I played the dances, and was part of the jazz band and the marching band while I was in the army,” he recalled.
When the war ended and DeRosa received his discharge, he played at Lou’s (Barbara Walters’s father) Times Square nightclub, the Latin Quarter, and was asked to play with the Tommy Tucker Orchestra during the filming of a documentary about the ensemble. While in Hollywood, DeRosa had the opportunity to meet and be on set with celebrities such as Errol Flynn, Barbara Stanwyck, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Abbott and Costello, and Tony Bennett, just to name a few. He also spent several years on the road performing with some of the renowned band leaders such as Tex Beneke, Boyd Raeburn, Lionel Hampton, and Percy Faith. He also established the Pat DeRosa Orchestra and the Pat DeRosa Band.
Afterwards, DeRosa took advantage of his military benefits and attended the Manhattan School of Music, attaining his Masters in Music Education in 1954. He went back to his childhood school district, South Huntington and taught music for 27 years before retiring. During this time, he met his wife, Constance while was playing a gig at Milano’s in Huntington.
“Constance was on a blind date, with her girlfriend and her husband. She was upset because her friend set her up with a guy who was much shorter than she was. She was tall, around five-seven,” indicated Patricia. “When she saw Dad up on stage, she thought he was cute and she distracted him by chewing on a lemon from her drink. Dad saw her and she was up on the dance floor by him and she made him laugh and he couldn’t play. He asked her for her number but it took him three weeks before he actually called her.”
“She was a beautiful lady,” DeRosa added. “She was very supportive of me with my music. She was an RN and head nurse in the operating room at some of the hospitals.” But according to DeRosa, she was quite a jokester. “When she was in labor and I’m panicking and trying to get to the hospital, she tells me we should stop and go to the movies. I just kept saying, ‘We have to get to the hospital! We have to get to the hospital!’”
In Her Father’s Footsteps
Constance and Pat DeRosa had two children, William and Patricia. By the time Patricia was three years old, she was already learning music and was playing the flute. By the time she was 16 years old, Patricia had joined her father’s band and was playing gigs with them. Patricia followed in her father’s footsteps, going on to attain her degree in Music Education and teaching in East Islip for 25 years. Retired since 2012, Patricia said, “Sometime after Dad retired from teaching, he contacted Jim Chapin, Harry Chapin’s father, and told him he wanted to start a big band. Chapin was a drummer and he was right there. It was known as the Pat DeRosa, Jim Chapin Big Band. I played piano.”
Patricia recalled, “I got a real education with Jim Chapin. I was very impressed by him. We rehearsed in the American Legion in Amagansett for a while and then we moved to Montauk Downs. We made a deal with them that we would do a dance on Wednesday nights and they could charge a small admission. It was great. It was always a packed house. People would come and dance. They loved it.”
Married, with one child, Patricia smiles when she reveals that her daughter, Nicole has just completed her Masters in Music Education. “She is a singer, musician, and songwriter in her own right. We have three generations of musicians now,” she said. Nicole joins her grandfather and mother at the scheduled gigs as lead singer and plays flute and sax as well.
“I’m so glad we are here to support Dad. It was a dream fulfilled when he played with Billy Joel’s band, Mike DelGuidice and Big Shot at the Paramount in Huntington last year. It was amazing that people who had never met can go up on stage and play together. When Dad took the stage, everyone started screaming. You would have thought he was Elvis Presley!”
Although DeRosa states that he wasn’t interested in becoming famous and was more interested in settling down and having a family, the recommendation that he received which gave him the opportunity to play duets with John Coltrane will always stand out as an experience he treasures. “John Coltrane was an outstanding soloist of his time. It was Coltrane who really inspired me to continue playing. And now it is a great delight to be playing with my daughter and granddaughter.”