Vince Cattolica

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The blind clarinetist Vince Cattolica was such a good player that the miserly Benny Goodman wound up giving him one of his own instruments. Cattolica was associated for decades with San Francisco's jazz…
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The blind clarinetist Vince Cattolica was such a good player that the miserly Benny Goodman wound up giving him one of his own instruments. Cattolica was associated for decades with San Francisco's jazz club scene, coming into his glory as a player during the '40s and '50s. This period is often considered the city's golden era as a Mecca for traditional jazz, but Cattolica was there for appreciative listeners right up until his death from a heart attack in early 2004, swinging strong and hard no matter what the styles dictated. With his creative taste ranging from New Orleans jazz to bebop, Cattolica performed with artists such as pianist Earl Hines and the trumpeter and drummer Marty Marsala.

Cattolica began studying music as a child, beginning with violin and piano. He was one of seven children in a typically large Italian family; his father was a fisherman. Suffering from cataracts, Vince Cattolica was never able to see anything beyond shadow shapes. By the age of 18 he was considered totally sightless. Once he got his fingers on a clarinet there was nothing much else that interested him -- he apparently even went as far as to sabotage the machines in his typing class so he would be able to get out and garner a bit more time with the licorice stick. As a professional his playing sidekicks also included Jack Sheedy, Wally Rose, Larry Vuckovich and Burt Bales, among many others. He officially retired in 1993, but prior to that was gigging at least five nights each week at the Fairmont Hotel. One of the clarinetist's final recordings was released in 1991, a tribute to classic jazz helmed by pianist Vuckovich and entitled Good Old Days Are Right Now.

On the subject of good old days, it was columnist Herb Caen who arranged a meeting between

the blind clarinetist and idol Goodman. Caen, who frequently wrote about the hilly city's jazz, liked to present snippets concerning Cattolica, sometimes quoting him on various subjects of interest. Caen brought Cattolica to Goodman's attention in the early '70s. As the result of them actually meeting in 1972, Goodman offered Cattolica a series of free personal lessons. He also wound up giving Cattolica a clarinet. In a 1986 column, Caen describes Goodman checking out a Fairmount Hotel gig at which Cattolica was holding forth with Jimmy Diamond's band. "Egged on by the crowd," Caen wrote, "He borrowed Vince Cattolica's clarinet and didn't even wipe off the mouthpiece. That's classy."