Aug. 14, 1937 - June 2, 2017
A good jazz musician has to master both structure and improvisation.
They are diametrical -- yet complementary -- skills that were essential to Ronald L. Corsaro Sr., both in his 32-year long vocation as a teacher of history and economics at Niagara-Wheatfield High School, and in his lifelong avocation as a Grammy-nominated jazz pianist, composer and arranger.
For those who knew him, Mr. Corsaro will be remembered not only as a teacher and football coach, but as a performer, mentor and artistic director of one of the largest music festivals in Western New York, the Lewiston Jazz Festival.
He died June 2 at his home in Wheatfield. He was 79.
Born in Niagara Falls, he was a graduate of the former Trott Vocational High School and earned a bachelor's degree from the SUNY Fredonia School of Music, where he was co-captain of the baseball team and later tried out for the New York Yankees.
Mr. Corsaro also studied music composition at North Texas State University and took courses at the University at Buffalo, SUNY Buffalo State College and Canisius College, where he obtained master’s degrees in special education and administration.
While he was a student at Fredonia, the young musician had the fortune to meet his idol and inspiration, jazz pianist and composer Bill Evans, a member of Miles Davis' sextet in the late 1950s.
According to his daughter, Lisa Corsaro Malpica, that happened on April 21, 1961, following a national jazz band competition at Notre Dame, in which Mr. Corsaro's band had come in second place.
"One of the judges happened to be Bill Evans. He came up to Ron and asked him if he could take him for dinner. Imagine that, your idol loving your work so much. This was one of the many stories Ron liked to tell," Corsaro Malpica said.
Carol Colato, owner of JD Calato Manufacturing and first vice chairwoman of the Lewiston Jazz Festival, also recalled that strong influence, which stayed with Mr. Corsaro many years later.
"He could play a Bill Evans ballad with so much sensitivity. Of course, Bill Evans was a great jazz pianist and I know that Ron idolized him. I think Bill Evans would have enjoyed listening to Ron play one of his tunes," Colato said.
That musical influence, along with those Mr. Corsaro picked up from other jazz pianists, was generously passed on to later generations of musicians, said New York City-based jazz pianist and composer Pete Maliverni, a Niagara Falls native.
Mr. Corsaro's "expertise at the instrument and as a composer-arranger and his generosity in sharing everything he knew sort of vie in my mind for what is the strongest thing about him. He knew so much, and yet, he wanted to share it," Maliverni said.
Maliverni, who started out as a classical pianist, said it was Corsaro who, more than 40 years ago, mentored him in his transition to jazz performance and composition.
"He always talked about a guy who was a pianist who played with (Charlie) Mingus and other people whose name was Wade Legge and who was on the scene in Buffalo for a short time. Wade was originally a New Yorker. He was one of those guys who died sadly too young, but Ron always talked about Wade as being a real influence on him," Maliverni recalled.
"Wade really took him under his wing, and I kind of felt like Ron was passing it on with me," Maliverni said.
Mr. Corsaro showed no less commitment in his professional endeavors as a teacher at Niagara-Wheatfield, where he also coached football and served as president of the teachers union.
"Ron was a fantastic union leader. He loved his teachers. He loved the school and loved the kids. He was just great for all three of them. He was not only a good union leader, but a great teacher, a fantastic teacher," said Chuck Raccuia, a retired New York State United Teachers representative and friend for over 40 years.
"He was well respected by the administration and well respected by the School Board. Ron had a way of getting respect from all sides," Raccuia said.
Mr. Corsaro retired from Niagara-Wheatfield in the early 1990s, but remained active in the jazz scene. For the past 15 years, he was engaged in organizing and promoting the Lewiston Jazz Festival as its artistic director.
"He knew the area musicians well. He'd go out to Fredonia and to various other areas to listen to people's bands before he'd bring them in. He was very conscious about making sure that we had only high quality performances," Colato said.
Mr. Corsaro's 2002 CD “Dream Suite” was nominated for a Grammy award. His original composition “When Do We Start” was recorded by his friend, world-renowned guitarist Tommy Tedesco.
Mr. Corsaro was active in the Ontario House Reunion Jazz Festival in Niagara Falls. He composed music for "The Tonight Show" and played piano for the Tommy Dorsey Band. His music has been performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
He was awarded the United Methodist Women’s Service Pin for his support of Youth Missions through music, and the New York State United Teachers’ Western NY Legend Award.
In addition to his daughter Lisa, he is survived by his wife of 58 years, the former Carol Sears; another daughter, Vicki Corsaro Smith; a son Ronald L. Jr.; his mother, Geraldine; two sisters, Kathleen Recchione and Cindy, and six grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday in Christ United Methodist Church, 350 Saratoga Road, Snyder.