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Remembering Joseph Grasso: A Man Who Inspired His Students, Peers, And Community



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UPDATE: After this article was published, The Newtown Bee received word on the morning of October 15 that due to rain the 25th Annual Joseph P. Grasso Festival will now have gates open at noon and the competition will begin at 1 pm.

Those who knew Joseph Grasso, Sr, can testify that he was the type of person who left an impression.

When news began to spread about his passing on October 9, many flooded social media and The Newtown Bee’s inbox to share their heartfelt sentiments for the man who meant so much to so many.

Joseph Grasso, Sr, was a longtime Newtown resident and beloved music educator. He was also a husband, father, and accomplished musician.

While teaching music in the Newtown Public Schools, he created the high school band program in the late 1960s and later became the director of music for the Newtown school system.

The Newtown High School (NHS) Class of 1992 dedicated its yearbook to Grasso upon his retirement and acknowledged his “thirty-two years of unwavering commitment, hard work, and success.”

The write-up noted that he taught an estimated 3,500 students during his time at Newtown High School and “significantly touched the lives of each and every one of them.”

His legacy not only lives on through the individuals who remember him, but also through the Annual Joseph P. Grasso Festival. The event is the NHS Marching Band & Guard’s home show at Blue & Gold Stadium.

The 2021 Joseph P. Grasso Festival is celebrating its 25th year this Saturday, October 16. Gates open at noon and the show begins at 1 pm. A moment of silence during the opening ceremony is expected to take place in honor of Grasso’s recent passing.

Student Memories

Having taught in Newtown for more than three decades, there are many students who remember Grasso fondly and have colorful stories of him to tell.

Kevin J. Neel, Class of 1987, admits that while he was not the most focused student, Grasso saw his potential and helped positively change the course of his high school experience.

“I talked too much and missed notes on my saxophone, and one day when I made a clear mistake, he stopped the rehearsal and gave me ‘the look.’ Every band student knew the look: head slightly dipped and his piercing eyes looking over his glasses right into your soul. I knew I was in trouble,” Neel said.

Grasso requested he see him in his office after rehearsal.

“His tiny office in the band room was cluttered with all of his memorabilia, and I sat waiting for my fate and the deserved tongue lashing. I didn’t get it. He came in, sat next to me and said, ‘You know you have potential, and you can contribute to marching band in a unique way. I want you to do something for me. Try out for drum major and take what we do here seriously. If you do this, you can have an impact. Now go home and think about it,’” Neel recalled.

He took that challenge to heart and, after trying out, became drum major and with a majorette, wound up leading the marching band for his senior year.

“It was, in retrospect, the highlight of all of my years in high school. Marching in New York City down Fifth Avenue for St Patrick’s Day was an incredible experience and a memory I will never forget — all because Mr Grasso gave me an opportunity when I didn’t deserve it. What a legacy,” Neel said.

Jonathan Schuman, Class of 1992, was part of the NHS Symphonic/Concert/Jazz/Marching bands and told The Newtown Bee that he is heartbroken over the news of Grasso’s passing.

“Mr Grasso – ‘Papa Joe’ as we affectionately would refer to him when he wasn’t around – was larger than life. [He was] a warm, amazingly dedicated man with a real commanding presence. He could make you laugh until you had tears in your eyes or scare you to tears with that stern look over the top of his glasses. You didn’t want to disappoint him,” Schuman said. “A real leader, he could recognize potential in the most difficult people, in this particular case, me. He never gave up on me, and he could have many times. He allowed me to find myself, while pushing me to find my ‘best’ self.”

He continued, “He put hundreds — if not thousands — of youth on a good path. I hope he knows how much he was loved, and I hope his family knows that the sacrifice he made, and they made no doubt, changed the world… one mischievous drummer at a time!”

Scott McWhirt, Class of 1985, had the pleasure of playing in the NHS bands for his four years of high school. Years before then, his family was also active in the band program with his parents serving on the NHS Band Parents Association and his sister Karen playing in band.

“Mr Grasso was a caring and dedicated educator and one heck of a musician!” McWhirt said. “He told me early on, ‘Scott, hear the note before you play it.’ He was able to build confidence in all of his players, from the young, insecure freshmen to the most seasoned seniors.”

One of the highlights of his band career with Grasso was going on the Germany/Austria trip his freshman year.

McWhirt reminisced, “We had 176 players, 16 chaperones, and one conductor: Mr Grasso. I still have fond memories of the trip. Additionally, the many competitions, parades, concerts, and other events we were fortunate to participate in made all the difference in my high school years… God Speed Mr Grasso and thank you.”

Frances Whittle Pease had the unique privilege of having both Mr and Mrs Grasso as her music teachers, as well as them being her neighbors. The couple even played at her wedding.

“I was in chorus from my freshman year on at Newtown High School, as well as being a minor figure in the percussion section of the band. But when Mr Grasso needed more low-brass players, he recruited me to play trombone, and the rest is history. I met my husband in the UConn Marching Band and we raised three musician-children who variously play piano, French horn, tuba, trumpet, and every form of rock guitar. My oldest son is presently assistant professor of music at Hartwick College,” Pease said.

She went on to say, “It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Grassos together had a huge influence on my life. They taught me the enormous pleasure of making music and of being part of the community of musicians... They were wonderful, kind, talented, solid people.”

Brandt Schneider was a student of Grasso’s from 1983 to 1987 and later returned to NHS in 1994 to work under Jack Zamary with the marching band.

Schneider said, “In 1991, I was working in rural Louisiana as a band director, saying often, ‘What would Mr Grasso do?’”

Schneider would often call the Grassos — chatting a bit with Mrs Grasso before she would pass the phone to her husband — to seek counsel from his mentor.

“He was very gracious with his time… He would not say ‘You should do this,’ but would lead me slowly to the right answer. He was very interested in learning about my groups,” Schneider said. “Later, while I was working at Derby High School, he visited and spent the day with my band. The kids were mesmerized by him as he led the group through rehearsal.”

He added, “The Grasso tree is filled with music educators, professional musicians, and community leaders. A great legacy.”

William Bausch, Class of 1985, was a student of Grasso’s throughout high school who went on to build a life around performing and teaching music. He had a similar mantra to Schneider during his career, asking himself the proverbial, “What would Mr Grasso do?”

“When I stopped teaching in 2016, I started a short-lived music education podcast talking with people who shaped my particular journey, and thanks to his daughter, Amy (also a music teacher !), Mr Grasso was on the first episode,” Bausch said. “My recollection of him in the classroom was very serious and focused on the music at hand, so it was wonderful to hear more of his personal story.”

Bausch added, “I believe his influence on Newtown’s culture and music nationally is significant… thanks again to Mr Grasso for all he did for us. I literally don’t know what I’d be doing with my life if not for the music programs he developed.”

Sean Harkness, Class of 1984, participated in Grasso’s extracurricular Jazz Ensemble program all four years of high school.

“Joe Grasso was a mountain. To me he personified what it meant to be a professional musician and exemplified how to do that with dignity,” he said.

Harkness noted that not only does he use the musical skills he learned from Grasso daily in his career as a musician, but he also gained valuable personal guidance from Grasso.

“His entire approach taught each of us the importance of mutual respect, professionalism, and clarity of communication,” he said. “To me he was also individually very nurturing. For instance, he encouraged me to study with his friend and former Stan Kenton bandmate, the great guitarist Sal Salvador. My fingers ache as I write just now from last night’s show at Birdland Jazz here in NYC, where I was using his chord substitution concepts all night. Thanks Sal… Thanks for pushing me, Joe.”

Doreen Sheldon Vetro, Class of 1978, remembered numerous memories of Grasso, including making the bicentennial album in 1976 in RCA studio in New York City, sightseeing and playing concerts in the Alps in Germany and Austria in 1978, marching band every fall in all kinds of weather, and Jazz Ensemble fun wearing “pizza-colored shirts.”

“To any one of us in the band, Mr Grasso will never be forgotten,” she summarized.

‘Driving For Results’

Greg Azrak, Class of 1987, first got to know Grasso when he taught him how to play the saxophone in middle school.

“He was a man who absolutely knew how to teach, and clearly loved to do it. He had a way of challenging kids, driving for results, making us want to work, and to appreciate when we got it right,” Azrak said. “Mr Grasso’s bands largely defined my very happy high school experience and gave me a lifelong love of listening and playing.”

One of his favorite memories of Grasso was “an in-school 1:1 adjudication that included an entirely botched chromatic scale. He looked at me, pulled his head back, cocked his eyebrow, and nodded with a ‘What the hell was that?’ smile (and gave me a mulligan).”

Chris Peterman, Class of 1984, was a student of Grasso’s and attributes him as a mentor/guide for becoming a professional musician.

“When I think back about the years of studying under Joe, I recall his focus on quality, on working hard to get the music right; the joy of collaboration in the various ensemble settings; the delight in exploring and striving to perform the many wonderful forms of music from over the centuries, from Bach to Gershwin to Benny Goodman to Weather Report to Steely Dan and beyond,” Peterman said. “Joe brought a laid-back, but strong fatherly way, to leading the many bands, sharing his love of all the music he brought to us, and stimulating our budding musical minds and hearts through that exposure and guidance.”

After studying music in college, he visited Grasso and was so delighted to get to share about his musical journey with him.

“Music has always been a huge part of my life and who I am, and Joe was an essential part of how I grew to be the musician and person I am today. I’ll always be grateful for him and his influence,” Peterman said.

Rev Miles Wallace, Class of 1976, recalled the impact Grasso made in his students lives as “powerful and everlasting contributions.”

Wallace explained, “Beyond the etudes and scales, beyond instilling a desire to pursue excellence through discipline, Mr Grasso imbued on me a passion for music, the creation of and the appreciation for music. He taught me how to listen, to the sounds that emerged from my instrument and to the sounds that emanated from the stereo speakers. That teaching prepared me to listen for the song of life, the continuum of consonance and dissonance in everything.”

He continued, “There exists for me a sorrow and a joy in the musical passage of a person I considered a mentor. I am diminished by his passing yet augmented by all that Mr Grasso bestowed on me. I am only one of many who hold Mr Grasso’s influence as a treasure as we offer that essence to all we may encounter on our paths. Through us, Mr Grasso’s song continues.”

Tina Erickson and her family moved to Newtown in the summer of 1976 before she started high school, all thanks to learning that the town was known to have the best high school band program around.

Her impression of Grasso was that “He was sometimes gruff — almost always a little scary — but he knew music, and he knew teenagers, and he knew how to make it all happen. He was a great colleague to the other teachers, as well, which made it easier on the students who wanted to be involved in other activities, as well as band. Top athletes in the school were also in band. Top scholars in school were also in band. Everybody at the school had real respect for the band and understood its value.”

Erickson says that the exceptional training she received from Grasso served her well in her career as a performing musician.

“I also learned a lot about being a teacher from him — I got to serve as his assistant for a year, after I had finished grad school. He kept telling me, ‘It’s Joe, Tina…’ every time I called him Mr Grasso, but I just couldn’t do it. He was that large a presence, for me,” she said. “His insights from how teenagers can be inspired, to how to get a clarinet section to play violin parts and not realize that it’s hard, or how to get a piano player to swing in a jazz ensemble when they’ve spent their whole lives learning Mozart, and most especially, how important the band program can be to the ones who don’t excel in music… the kids who might otherwise have slipped through the cracks, but who kept coming to school, and kept trying, because they had a place to belong — these will stay with me as long as I live. “

Erickson concluded her sentiments, “Mr Grasso was a gigantic influence on my life, and I am so very, very grateful to have been in his sphere, right when I needed him the most. Rest in Peace, Mr. Grasso, and thanks for all the guidance and love.”

Jeffrey Richey, Class of 1987, paid homage to Grasso, saying he was “a true educator who fostered a lifelong love of music and opened the world to generations of students at NHS. You will always live on in my memories Mr Grasso. Thank you.”

Peers Reflect

Since Grasso started the high school band program in Newtown, there have been fewer than half a dozen band directors to follow in his footsteps, one of which being retired NHS band director Kurt Eckhardt.

The two first met when Eckhardt interviewed for the band director position at Joel Barlow High School in 1987 and Grasso was on the hiring committee.

“He asked tough questions and did not seem impressed with my answers, so I thought that I did not get the job. To my surprise, he recommended me, and I was at Barlow for 15 years,” Eckhardt said. “During that time, I became acquainted with the excellence and reputation of the Newtown High School Band Program. Among colleagues, Joe was highly respected for his skills as a musician, and the outstanding work he did with the Newtown students.”

When Grasso retired, he personally reached out to Eckhardt to encourage him to take the position of NHS band director, but Eckhardt shares that he was not ready to make that change at the time. From there, two other directors, Jack Zamary and James Dumas, took the reins until Eckhardt filled Grasso’s request and became director in 2002 at NHS.

“In my 42 years of teaching, I have taught at five different high schools and Newtown was the only one where I walked into an already well-established program. The legacy of Joe Grasso is the nearly 60 years of excellence of the Band Program, a great gift bestowed upon the Newtown community and its youth,” Eckhardt said.

Tony Inzero, who led the NHS Choir and Singers, remembers Grasso as “a class act” who was highly regarded by both his students and peers.

“It was my good fortune to teach side-by-side with Joe for 20 years,” Inzero said.

Michelle Hiscavich, director of visual and performing arts for Newtown Public Schools, had a plethora of heartfelt sentiments to share.

She began by saying how when Grasso started teaching in Newtown it was extremely rural.

She explained, “Students did not have their own cars like they do today, and Joe would drive around town to pick them up for rehearsal and bring them home again. Talk about a dedicated and caring teacher.”

He was not only committed to his students, but also his peers.

“Joe was practical and kind,” Hiscavich said. “Over his 32-year career as band director and director of music, he provided help and advice to his students and his music staff. He built a music program that continues to be recognized throughout the state.”

Even in his retirement, he was always of service. He stepped in as a substitute for the NHS band when a new director search was underway, and for Newtown’s 300th birthday he helped bring the United States Army Field Band in from Washington, DC, to join in the celebration.

Hiscavich added, “As music continued into the third generation of the Grasso family, Joe was very happy and proud to come to his grandson’s concerts. We were happy to introduce Joe to the newest Newtown music families to acknowledge and thank him for all that he did and the legacy we continue. He had a big smile on his face as he listened to the latest music updates in our schools and was proud of where we are as a music program. Joe was truly Newtown’s Music Man!”

Community Remarks

Most recently that title of NHS band director belongs to Aaron Ovsiew, who paid respect to his Grasso when he heard the news of his passing.

“While I never met Joe Grasso, the mark he left on the Newtown High School Band is profound. Not only did he build the program, but he provided an opportunity for his students to set high expectations for themselves as musicians, artists, and people, no matter what their plans were after graduation,” Ovsiew said. “His legacy is the life-changing experiences that past, present, and future NHS students are able to have because of their participation in the band program that he built.”

On behalf of Newtown Lions Club, Kevin Corey sent in “condolences to Joe Grasso’s family and also to the Newtown High School marching band on his passing” and noted that Grasso served as the Lions’ president from 1997 to 1999.

Dr Lorrie Rodrigue, superintendent on Newtown Public Schools, told The Newtown Bee, “Having worked in Newtown for many years, I know the stellar reputation Joe Grasso had as a premiere band director. He loved his student-musicians, and they truly respected his knowledge and his direction. The Annual Grasso Festival was created in his honor [for] a man who inspired students, staff, and Newtown community members alike. He will be sadly missed by all.”

First Selectman Dan Rosenthal has fond memories of Grasso and shared that his older sister, Julie, was even in the band and marquette in the early-1980s.

“At that time, home football games were played on Saturday afternoons and between the popularity of the team and undoubtedly the marching band, it seemed the whole town made being there a priority. Joe built a culture of excellence that continues to this day and will for decades to come, as the marching band remains a source of pride for our community,” Rosenthal said. “My sincere condolences to the Grasso family. Newtown is a better place because of Joe and his many contributions.”

Reporter Alissa Silber can be reached at alissa@thebee.com.

Newtown resident Joseph Grasso, seen in this Newtown High School yearbook photo directing a music program, passed away on October 9.
Joseph Grasso, second from left, playing the clarinet, performs with music legend Louis Armstrong, third from left. —photo courtesy Amy Grasso
Joseph Grasso, director of music at Newtown High School, was a skilled performer as seen here in this yearbook photo. —photo courtesy Michelle Hiscavich
Joseph Grasso served as the Newtown Lions Club president from 1997 to 1999, as seen in these newspaper clippings. —photo courtesy Kevin Corey
Joseph Grasso smiles, while a plaque with a bow rests under his seat, during his retirement night at Newtown High School in 1992. —photo courtesy Amy Grasso
Newtown High School Band Director Joseph Grasso holds a bundle of celebratory balloons during his last home football game. —photo courtesy Amy Grasso
Pictured is Joseph Grasso from the Newtown High School 1990 yearbook.
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