Bobby Militello continues his musical quest in the classroom

Buffalo musician and UB instructor hosts an illustrious jazz resume

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Bobby Militello’s career is a destiny fulfilled.

At around 10 years old, Militello flipped through 99-cent jazz records on the corner of Grant and Ferry Street.

His first record as a kid was trumpeter Maynard Ferguson’s “Message from Newport.” He used to lay in front of his stereo and play Ferguson’s albums, until each solo was ingrained in his brain. When Ferguson appeared in or around Buffalo, Militello made sure to be there. 

And by 25, he was on the road with the jazz great.

“I felt elated, I felt euphoric, I felt all of the things a kid would feel. I felt like a kid in a candy store,” Militello said. “It was what I felt I was born to do, all I was working for was momentum toward that goal and I got what I wanted.”

The 68-year-old saxophonist and flutist has left a mark in a number of musical dialogues throughout his career, from his work with Ferguson in the late ‘70s to his 30 years with jazz pianist Dave Brubeck’s quintet. Militello has delighted listeners for decades, with his keen understanding of melodies along with an on-stage versatility and authority. 

Today, Militello is an instructor in UB’s music department where he teaches his sax students how to play jazz. Along with a jazz sax quartet, Militello said his students learn how to get a strong sound and different concepts in playing jazz in his classes, depending on the students’ levels. Together, he helps them work on their “soul,” or work to grasp their inner voice.

“As it turns out, at my ripe old age, I have a lot to say and my students react extremely well to the way I teach,” Militello said.

“The university teaches many things, but it doesn’t teach you real world ethics, morals or experience. That’s what I can give to my students. I try and relay to them what I feel is real world experience rather than what they think is going to be the case from what they learned in school.”

 And Militello has the experiences to back up his “real world” lesson plans.

In the ‘60s, Militello learned under the direction of some of Buffalo’s best jazz instructors — Lafayette High School teacher Sam Scamacca and private instructor John Sedola, who taught Mike Migliori and Don Menza, among others. 

After Militello graduated high school in the late ‘60s, he briefly attended UB. But his plans suddenly changed when the Joe Azarello Quintet, which featured vocalist Pat Bass, offered him a two-week road gig.

“I went out and did it, and I didn’t come back for four years,” Militello said. “I found out that’s where I needed to be.” 

Following his run with the quintet, Militello toured with a show group in the early ‘70s called The Showcasemen. By 1974, Militello was with a different group, Buffalo jazz fusion sextet New Wave. 

Maynard Ferguson heard the band live, and when his baritone saxophonist Bruce Johnstone was leaving the group, that’s when Militello got the offer to join one of his musical idols.

Militello said he saw the moment coming to him, and he emphasized making the most of his goal.

“Sometimes you get what you want and you don’t meet the standard, but I met and surpassed that for Maynard, where I became his road manager, too, because he trusted me,” Militello said.

“That’s how you learn to become a player, if you’re true to yourself eventually you develop this solo that you can play every night if you want to, and you have to fight that. When you start doing the same solo, that’s like sudden death. You’ve got to try and play it differently every day you can, and you can do that on the road with a major jazz situation.”

Militello played baritone saxophone and flute with Ferguson during some of the bandleader’s Columbia Records years. As a soloist chock full of funk, Militello impressed listeners with otherworldly solos in “Theme from Star Trek” and 1977’s “Maria.”

After some time with the Dick Fadale Quintet, Militello helped put together a Buffalo jazz fusion band – RPM – in the early ‘80s. During one performance at Mulligan’s on Hertel Avenue, a bar owned by Bobby’s brother Michael, the band’s stylings caught the attention of funk musician Rick James.

Militello said James thought the band was “tight.” James asked him if he wanted to do an album. He agreed, and winded up getting a contract with Motown.

Militello’s solo debut, “Bobby M Blow,” was released as a result. The album was jam-packed with funk, and was accompanied by a Beverly Hills album release party that featured appearances by the likes Stevie Wonder and Robin Williams.

But for Militello, stardom is never something he hoped for.

“My concentration was my playing, so I knew that I was on a quest that I would be on until the day I die, and I would never get there,” Militello said.

“Being a ‘star’ is a whole different trip. You put a show together and you go out and play it every day, that’s got nothing to do with wanting to grow. If you aren’t on a quest, there’s nothing that’s good about it anymore because you already decided you arrived. You can’t do that, you always need to know there’s more to play.”

As Militello locked into his musical “quest,” another one of his dreams came true in the process.

Years before his solo debut album, Militello was touring with Ferguson in the late ‘70s. Jazz legend Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola saw he received a standing ovation, so Iola wrote Militello’s name down in her book.

Militello, while looking for a producer for his album, got the call from Brubeck. 

He needed a player.

“He asked if I wanted to come to New York the next week to do some playing, and he didn’t say audition, he never said that word,” Militello said. 

Militello agreed, which fulfilled one of his childhood dreams to play with the pianist. He memorized the songs he needed to play for Brubeck in New York. After his first gig, he would sub in for Brubeck’s clarinetist Bill Smith. When Smith retired, Militello was playing with a giant in his craft.

“Dave told me at that point, he wished he could have used me more years before, because he wanted that energy in the band,” Militello said.

It was the ultimate compliment, as Militello continued to play with Brubeck for three decades. In doing so, he travelled around the world to gigs at German jazz clubs, Newport’s famous jazz festival as well as Monterey Jazz Festival. 

But his career in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when he lived in Los Angeles, came with an imbalance. Militello said he sometimes made $2,500 a week playing casual gigs, and his work with jazz fusion groups were his “life blood.” 

“I would go out with Brubeck and be elated, the highest high you want to have. Then I would come home, change my clothes in the parking lot and go play a bar mitzvah,” Militello said. “That dichotomy was very destructive to my personality because the highs were too high and the lows were too low. That’s when I said ‘this is not for me.’”

Today, in between his local gigs with his quartet, Militello manages his classes in Baird Hall. He curates his lesson plans with students’ musical futures in mind, whether they want to be players or involved in military bands.

“I want them to understand the truth about the career they’ve chosen, it’s important that they understand the truth to me, so I show it to them, I exhibit it in action when they come to my gigs and hear me play,” Militello said.

For Militello, there is a lot to learn between himself and others in the music department, particularly among the jazz faculty quartet. The faculty quartet, which consists of all UB instructors, started in 2017 and features Grammy-award winning pianist George Caldwell, drummer John Bacon and former Charles Mingus-protege Sabu Adeyola.

Caldwell, who formerly played with the Count Basie Orchestra and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, recommended Militello join the music department in 2016. Caldwell said he “bonded instantly” with Militello when he met him for the first time.

“I don’t know many people who know what a great fountain of knowledge and experience UB has in Bobby,” Caldwell said. “What he knows, what he has done and where he has been, somebody should do a study on him.”

Caldwell said on a musical level, Militello’s sound has a recognizable quality comparable to Miles Davis: when listeners hear Militello’s sound, he said, “they know it’s him.”

“There’s something unchained about his sound. It has a tremendous amount of discipline because you have to work very hard to be able to express yourself in that medium, so he really knows this music,” Caldwell said.

“The things he has to say within it are very profound, his music is powerfully creative and he’s always searching.”

Others in the department, such as Bacon, are overjoyed to work alongside Militello.

“Bobby Militello is one of the most generous musicians that I have worked with. He is like that as a person also, so it is no surprise that he makes space for the people he is playing with,” Bacon said. “He is very dynamic. He is self assured but aware of the element that he is performing in. He is considerate of the listeners and wants to give them the best he has to offer.” 

Militello said he believes this group of “serious players” in the music department is the basis for a full jazz program.

“There is so much that is available, the four of us feel exactly the same about music,” Militello said. 

Today, Militello makes frequent appearances around Buffalo with his quartet, which plays shows everywhere from Sportsmen’s Tavern to Trinity Episcopal Church.

Despite a lengthy career of musical highlights and his settlement into university life, Militello said he’s still trying to find new sounds, approaches and revelations.

“I know I’m not as great as I could be, and I know if I work harder –– which I still do –– I will get better,” Militello said. “It’s the search for the grail, but you just keep searching.”

Benjamin Blanchet is the senior features editor and can be reached at benjamin.blanchet@ubspectrum.com and @BenjaminUBSpec.