Nov 24, 2010 Russ Tarby Uncategorized
Joe Riposo doesn’t even remember the accident.
Last April, he was descending a ladder propped against his 40-foot yacht, Dr. Jazz, which was in dry dock in Union Springs at Castelli’s Marina on Cayuga Lake.
“As I came down, I missed the first rung of the ladder and fell straight back, with the back of my head hitting the gravel road,” he said. Next thing he knew, his wife Jo-Ann had gathered him into their Lexus, and they sped off to Syracuse’s Crouse Hospital.
Emergency room doctors ordered a CAT scan. Everything looked fine, and the 77-year-old master musician showed no signs of brain damage.
Less than three months later, however, Riposo felt pressure in his head as he blew his saxophone. Then the normally talkative Riposo found himself unable to form words. His left leg was dragging.
Dr. Victor Croglio, Riposo’s family physician, recommended an immediate MRI at Upstate University Hospital.
After studying the MRI, Upstate specialists diagnosed a subdural hematoma on the right side of Riposo’s head – a blood vessel had burst into the liquid sac that surrounds the brain – a condition that can lead to incapacitating seizures.
Surgeons scheduled a procedure to drain the hematoma on Aug. 17. Though doctors advised him against playing his wind instruments, the Syracuse Area Music Awards Hall of Famer received permission to perform one tune, “Summer of ’42,” with the Mario DeSantis Orchestra at its Salt City Sunday concert July 17 at Liverpool’s Johnson Park.
Tears came to his eyes that day as he explained his situation to friends and fellow musicians. He thought that afternoon’s one-song effort might be his last performance ever.
No time to lose
As the author of the book “Jazz Improvisation – The Whole-Brain Approach,” Riposo was well aware that his brain’s right hemisphere is the source of his improvisatory skills as an instrumentalist. And now his right hemisphere was in medical jeopardy.
On Aug. 13, four days before the medical procedure was scheduled, “I started feeling so strange that I went back to the emergency room for another CAT scan,” he said. Blood continued to pressure the brain. Resident surgeon Dr. Margaret Riordan told him not to wait four more days.
“If blood gets into your brain,” she said, “You’re in trouble.”
After discussing his options with his family, Riposo underwent the emergency procedure on Aug. 14 at Upstate. Riordan performed operation under the supervision of neurosurgeon Dr. Gregory Canute.
“I felt more comfortable about the decision because of what I know about the brain,” Riposo said. “I was able to discuss things with the surgeons.”
He remained awake and alert through the entire operation.
“I was able to examine the instruments and ask the doctors what they were doing and why,” he recalled. They shaved the right side of his head, cut into his scalp to expose the skull, drilled a small hole through the bone and inserted a metal bolt and a clear tube through which they siphoned 10 cubic centimeters of blood from the hematoma.
“There was absolutely no pain,” Riposo said.
But he knew he wasn’t yet out of the woods.
“The unknowns are what really scare you,” he said. “With my limited knowledge of the procedure, I knew about the possibility of air getting into the brain when the [drain] bolt was removed,” he said. “But then Dr. Eric Deshaies took the hardware out of my head on Aug. 15, so that unknown was gone.”
Quiet road to recovery
As he recovered from the surgical intervention, Riposo still couldn’t play his horn.
“I heard music in my mind, but I couldn’t play it,” he said. Instead, he wrote four arrangements for a couple local ensembles. He also began a new book, “Developing a Jazz Vocabulary,” to add to previous publications such as “BeBop Scales” and “Target and Approach Tones” and, of course, “The Whole-Brain Approach,” his 1989 masterpiece on improving improvisation by understanding hemisphericity.
By mid-September, Riposo was blowing his sax and clarinet for 10 minutes at a time. By late-October, after he’d been weaned off the medications he’d been taking since August, he was playing for two hours, improvising effortlessly.
“The medicine made me feel loopy,” he said, “but once I was off the pills, I said, ‘Hey, I can still play!’ I really found my voice.”
It took some time for him to build his lip and facial muscles back into shape, but by mid-November he was blowing his horns for three hours daily. Now he’s returning to the bandstand with the 16-piece Salt City Jazz Collective at 6 p.m. Wednesday Dec. 1 at Syracuse Suds Factory in Armory Square.
‘A miracle he’s back’
His former student and current colleague in the Collective sax section, Jim Spadafore, looks forward to Riposo’s return.
“I was there that day in July at Johnson Park,” Spadafore recalled, “and Joe thought that was it, he might be done playing, so it’s really kind of a miracle he’s back.”
On Wednesday, he hopes to debut a new chart he wrote for the Collective, a tune titled “Circularity.”
For the past five decades he has played with the Mario DeSantis Orchestra for which he penned arrangements of tunes like “Paper Moon” and “When Sonny Gets Blue.” He’ll rejoin that band at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17 for “Christmas at the Palace” featuring trumpeter Joe Magnarelli at Eastwood’s Palace Theatre.
Orchestra manager Maria DeSantis will be glad to have him back. “Without Joe,” she said, “we were missing part of our family.”
Syracuse University music students feel the same way. Riposo has been on disability leave as director of jazz studies at SU, but he’ll be back in the rehearsal rooms come January.
“All my students have been sending me get-well cards,” he said. “I love teaching too.”