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

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."

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