Lou Stellute knows only the hard way to play the saxophone

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Lou Stellute says the last note of his name the way he plays saxophone.

"Some people say Staloo-TAY, but it's a hard T."

In Tune: Saxophonist Lou Stellute

Saxophonist Lou Stellute talks about his career in music in this installment of the PG's occasional series, "In Tune." (Video by Nate Guidry; 11/7/2012)

Growing up on the South Side Slopes in the 1950s and '60s, he heard older musicians say, "You play really hard, but you don't know what you're doing." So he listened and learned, mimicking the big sound of saxophonists such as Red Prysock and Illinois Jacquet and the physicality of Dexter Gordon and Hank Mobley.

"I learned by listening to solos, copying the masters. It's still the best way to learn how to play jazz," he says.


By the time he was in high school, he had found his style -- intense, instrument jabbing the air, head shining with sweat. He knows no other way to play.

"I try to give it everything I have. I don't care if it's two people in the audience or 2,000."

Despite his obvious exertion and age -- he's 68 -- he's not exhausted at the end of a set. "I'm wired, not tired. It gives you more energy."

Waiting to perform is what drains him. "I hate waiting. I have to build up the intensity again."

Mr. Stellute plays twice a month at the James Street Gastropub on the North Side and every Thursday at CJ's in the Strip District, adding a saxy spark to Roger Humphries' band and that of Etta Cox and Al Dowe. It's nothing like it was when he started out, a club in every neighborhood, but it keeps him busy. He still remembers hearing his first sax solo on WAMO-AM, when he was 8 or 9 years old.

"I said, 'That's what I want to do.' "

His father, Louis Sr., played trombone and dreamed of being an opera singer. Nat King Cole and Charlie Parker records were the soundtrack of Mr. Stellute's childhood.

"When I was 10 years old, my mom and dad were trying to think what to do with me. I wanted to play sax."

But the band at St. Canice in Knoxville needed clarinet players, so he started with that instrument. Before long he had switched to saxophone and lessons with Harry Baker. By age 14, he was performing at Ceili's Lounge on Route 51. As a high school senior, he was playing weddings with accordionist Bobby Bodnar and jazz with pianist Dave Obidzinki.

Mr. Stellute played all types of music -- hard bop, funk, rock, bossa nova -- in venues ranging from dives to colleges and art galleries. Teacher Cy Hayes turned him on to jazz and older musicians taught him the craft, the musical language. But they could not teach him soul. You have to be born with that, he says.

"I never listened to any white players. It was all the greats: Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. ... The older I get, the more I'm influenced by Coltrane. It was 40 or 50 years ago, but he was so far advanced."

After high school, Mr. Stellute left town, working the Southern chitlin circuit in the late '60s with organist Jon Bartel and guitarist-vocalist Larry O'Brien and living and playing in New Jersey, Texas, Oregon and Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla. During a five-year stint in the San Francisco Bay Area, he sold his instrument and gave up music altogether, managing a liquor store. Somehow he always found his way back home.

"There's something about this place. ... You get recharged," he says. "Pittsburgh musicians are unique. They play with soul and emotion. Some of New York's best musicians are from Pittsburgh."

When Mr. Stellute returned from California in 1980, he reconnected with brothers Bill and George Heid. The latter, a drummer, bought him a saxophone, a King Super 20 Silver Sonic, to replace the one he'd sold. Mr. Stellute played with George Heid and organist Gene Ludwig and renewed his relationship with bassist Dwayne Dolphin.

"He's a mentor of mine. I've learned so much from playing with him. His influence on me is profound," he says.

While playing at The Sunken Cork in Mt. Lebanon in 1980, Mr. Stellute met a girl from Overbrook who played a little piano. But it was her perfect pitch and musical recall that drew him.

"When I get stumped learning solos, Lynda can hum it back to me," he says. "It's a match made in heaven."

They have been married for 30 years and have lived in Pleasant Hills for almost as long.

For six years, Mr. Stellute played with the band Salsamba, cutting two records. He returned to Florida in 1994, but the heat was too much for him. Playing the way he does in 100-degree temperatures actually made him sick, he says. Within two weeks of his return in 1999, he was playing with Mr. Humphries, whom he first met as a teenager at The Savoy.

"He was already a sensation at 16. Roger is the greatest university you can go to, always leading you to the right place."

Mr. Humphries, a percussionist, is one of Pittsburgh's masters, Mr. Stellute says, along with trumpeter Sean Jones, whose musical presence is as big as his frame. "Being on a bandstand with him is a blessing. He's something special."

Mr. Stellute says if someone gave him a record deal and said he could choose anyone for his band, he wouldn't have to look far. "I prefer to play with Pittsburgh musicians. I don't need anyone else."

The next generation of jazz musicians sharpen their skills in music schools rather than clubs, he says. But they must establish their styles on their own. "If you play hard or you play soft, the music reflects who you are."

This saxophonist knows only the hard way, and plans to continue on it.

"Hopefully my best playing is ahead of me."


Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978. First Published November 7, 2012 5:00 AM


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