Al Belletto, the modern New Orleans jazz saxophonist who performed at venues around the world and had a successful career as a nationally known recording artist and bandleader, died Dec. 26. He was 86.
Equally proficient on the clarinet as well as the sax, Belletto toured nationally and internationally and had a recording career with major labels including Capitol Records, dating back to the 1950s and ’60s.
Music writer Jason Berry once called him “one of New Orleans’ pioneering modern jazzmen,” describing a career that faced early challenges in a city known more for traditional and Dixieland jazz.
A New Orleans native, his musical training began at Warren Easton High School, about the same time he also began landing professional gigs. At 16, he began his studies at Loyola University.
Early gigs included performing for strippers on Bourbon Street, Belletto admitted, saying they were among the only jobs a modern jazzman like himself could find.
While earning his chops on Bourbon Street and at the same time working toward his undergraduate degree, Belletto led his own band. He began playing around New Orleans with Louis Prima, Sharkey Bonano, Wingy Manone and the Dukes of Dixieland, before forming his own group in 1952.
After graduating from Loyola, he headed to Chicago briefly, before returning home to earn a master’s degree at LSU.
He later traveled to New York, where he made friends with Mel Tormé , who introduced him to contacts in the music world, including bandmaster Stan Kenton, who helped land Belletto his first recording deal.
Later, Belletto’s sextet was absorbed into Woody Herman’s orchestra for a 1958 state department tour of South and Central America.
In the 1960s, Belletto became homesick and returned to New Orleans for a job as director of entertainment for the Playboy Club chain, and a regular performer in its French Quarter franchise. In addition to his own gigs, he performed at the club alongside Ellis Marsalis and his trio. Belletto also directed the Al Hirt Big Band and had a long association with the Grammy-winning trumpeter.
He was a member of the board of directors of the original New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Family members recalled that, in 1968, he successfully pressed for a policy guaranteeing not only that the city’s prominent black musicians would be presented at the festival but that they also would receive compensation commensurate with the white musicians. Belletto went on to perform at Jazz Fest for 35 years. He also was a founding performer at the French Quarter Festival.
Belletto also served as a music educator, performing at schools as part of programs organized by the Louisiana Jazz Federation.
He is survived by his wife, a son and two grandchildren.
There will be a celebration of his life at the New Orleans Musicians Union Hall, 2401 Esplanade Ave., on Saturday f rom 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.