Throughout most of Pat DeRosa’s more than 99 years of living, there is one item that has never been far from his side: his Selmer Mark VI saxophone.
It is clear, upon close examination, that the instrument has been well used and loved for decades. It long ago lost its shine, and is dotted with small blooms of discoloration, in various shades of green and gold, on the surface and in the indentations throughout the intricate floral patterns surrounding the engraved words bearing its name. The wear is also visible on the buttons and nodules where Mr. DeRosa’s fingers have nimbly tapped out notes over the course of a musical career which, at its peak, saw him as one of the most sought-after saxophone players in the country, jamming alongside greats like John Coltrane, and going on tour with Tommy Tucker’s band in Hollywood in the 1940s.
Sitting in an armchair at the Montauk home he shares with his daughter, Patricia DeRosa Padden, on a rainy July 3, Mr. DeRosa wasn’t sure if he would have the energy to play the saxophone. But he wore the instrument strap around his neck, just in case, and before long, he consented to picking up the instrument, playing for just a few minutes. When he set the Selmer down, he wore a broad smile.
Mr. DeRosa, who will turn 100 on December 6, still plays the saxophone at least once every week. It’s something he’s done since he was just 12 years old, when, after a few years of taking music lessons, his mother took him down to the Bowery in Manhattan and bought him his first saxophone. Mr. DeRosa purchased the Selmer sometime in the 1940s, after finishing his master’s at Manhattan School of Music.
Whatever he paid for it, Mr. DeRosa has certainly gotten his money’s worth. His lifelong love affair with the saxophone — and with jazz and big band music generally speaking — enabled him to rub shoulders with some of biggest Hollywood stars of the 1940s and ’50s, to establish himself as a talented performer, and also to provide for his family with a steady and rewarding career as a high school music teacher. Recently, it has earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
On July 1, Ms. DeRosa Padden learned that, after a long and detailed review, her father had been approved to enter the book as world’s oldest professional saxophone player.
The distinction is the result of five years of work by Ms. DeRosa Padden, who, since her own retirement from teaching, has been on a mission to cement her father’s legacy, and see him garner the recognition he deserves for his long and remarkable career as a musician.
“He’s so humble and would never ask for anything,” she said, while sitting next to her father in their living room, which includes a grand piano, several guitars and other mementos that indicate how important music is to the family. (Ms. DeRosa Padden’s daughter, Nicole DeRosa Padden, is also an accomplished musician). “When I retired, I was looking at him and thinking, this guy is so talented but he has no recognition really. People know him if they played with him, but a lot of people don’t know him, and I said, he really needs to be known.”
Mr. DeRosa called the Guinness Book recognition a “great honor,” as he spoke in his home on Saturday, sharing his memories of playing the saxophone over the years. He admitted that he had a hard time remembering the names of all the famous musicians he’d played with other the years, and the Hollywood celebrities he’d rubbed shoulders with, although some stood out, thanks to some prodding from his daughter. He’d met Ava Gardner in Hollywood; had been invited to lunch with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis while he was touring with Tommy Tucker’s big band; and of course, there were the years where he regularly played with jazz great John Coltrane, before Coltrane’s death in 1967 at the age of just 40.
Despite gaining entrée to that world, Mr. DeRosa was never seduced by it, and was never seriously tempted to make playing the saxophone and performing his solo career pursuit.
“I always just wanted to come home,” he said, when speaking of time spent in California in the heyday of big band music. Instead, he chose to stay true to his roots. He was married for more than 50 years to his wife, Constance DeRosa, who died in 2009. They raised a family in South Huntington. Mr. DeRosa taught music in the South Huntington School District for 27 years before retiring in 1978, and was beloved by his students. He used the GI Bill to earn his master’s in oboe and English horn. Essentially, he followed the advice that is often dispensed to those who feel called to the arts — don’t quit your day job — but instead found a way to stay connected to his passion for playing the saxophone and performing.
Mr. DeRosa first began playing the saxophone professionally in the 1940s. When he took a job at Grumman at the age of 19, before the start of World War II, he was also part of a band of Grumman employees. A photo of him as a teenager playing saxophone in that band was one of several documents and pieces of evidence Ms. DeRosa Padden submitted as part of the rigorous process to prove to Guinness Book officials just how long he’d been performing. She also had to send in three letters of recommendation, from people who could attest to Mr. DeRosa’s long musical career. After he was drafted by the Army, Mr. DeRosa continued to perform with the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band.
Mr. DeRosa continued to play with some of the most popular big bands of the day, which were in their prime in the 1940s and ’50s, playing in venues like the Waldorf Astoria, and in Paramount Theater in New York City, as well as the Paramount in Huntington, but as time went on, he settled into his career as a music teacher and played more and more on the local scene.
In the 1980s, when Mr. DeRosa began splitting his time between Fort Lauderdale and Montauk, he was part of a big band, playing lead saxophone, with Jim Chapin as the drummer. They would play to crowds at Montauk Downs, and other local venues. In more recent years, Mr. DeRosa was part of a trio with his daughter and granddaughter.
Within the last 10 years, even as he passed his 90th birthday, Mr. DeRosa would still easily find his way onto local stages, even with bands who had never heard of him.
“We’d go around meeting local bands and I’d go up to them and say, ‘Hi, this is my dad, he plays the saxophone and he used to play with Coltrane, would you mind if he sat in?’” Ms. DeRosa Padden explained. “They’d say sure, and then he’d get up there and blow the whole thing away. He could sit in with any band at any time. And now everybody from here to Hampton Bays knows him if they’re a musician.”
A place in the Guinness Book will make Mr. DeRosa known to the entire world, marking the completion of another bit of recognition his daughter has worked to earn for him in recent years. In 2020, Mr. DeRosa was inducted into the Long Island Hall of Fame, which she said was another arduous process of providing proof and paperwork, although she said it was not quite as demanding as the Guinness Book process.
Owning a world record won’t stop Mr. DeRosa from performing. He has a gig booked for July 18 at Smith Point Park in Shirley, where he will perform at the first of what will be several birthday celebrations in his honor. The event is a fundraiser for veterans association Project 9 Line, and is open to the public.
It will be a time of celebration, for both his impending milestone birthday, and for a life well lived, where almost all of his “bucket list” items have been ticked off, with the notable exception of one: he still wants to perform live with Billy Joel, who he calls “a king.” Ms. DeRosa Padden has been working on making that a reality for years, but she’s also making sure to be in the moment and enjoy what she calls the “amazing life” her father has lived.
At the age of 99, most people cannot still actively engage in whatever their life’s passion or favorite hobby or pursuit is, if they can even manage to live that long. The body tends to rebel, or the mind, or both, and skills that had been honed to the point of near effortlessness slowly but surely fade away. With a gentle rain pattering against the living room window, scurrying around at his feet, Mr. DeRosa admitted that, “little by little,” it does become harder to play the saxophone. And then, giving little indication of that, he picked up the Selmer Mark VI — somewhere in a realm far beyond the 10,000 hour range Malcolm Gladwell famously demarcated as the amount of time it takes to master a skill — and he played, one jazz note after another smoothly drifting into the next.