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How a bruised brain made Syracuse Jazz legend Joe Riposo wonder if he'd ever play again

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.

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