The below is a profile article I wrote for my Journalism class last semester about jazz band director Rick Britto, who recently passed away from a sudden heart attack at 57. The article shows that he will be sorely missed at Wheaton. Feel free to comment with any memories of this great man, or visit the obituary to leave messages of condolences.
He wears a dark blue flowery button-up and loose black slacks. His eyes twinkle at the crowd assembled in the Kresge Theater. He raves about Charlie Parker, his hearty guffaws echoing across the intimate space. For a moment, he rocks on the piano bench, chuckling, and then he addresses the band.
“Everyone ready?” The eight members nod.
Rick Britto, the jazz band director at Wheaton College, raises his arm, pronounces the beat, and the music begins.
Britto has been a student of music since age 5, when he started playing the clarinet. By age 12, he played the tenor saxophone, the piano, and the organ, and at age 14, he performed professionally with The Skyliners Big Band.
However, when Britto was young, he was not under the impression that he would become a professional musician.
“I always thought I would be a history teacher. But they wanted me to be a musician. It wasn’t a choice for me,” said Britto. “I love it, and I learned to love it, but in reality it was a family business.”
Now, Britto teaches classes, ensembles and lessons at Wheaton College. He enjoys “teaching people how to relate to, understand and communicate to each other with music, and of course to help people to relate to their past and become part of their history.”
Thomas Van Duyne, a sophomore who has taken almost two years of piano and alto saxophone lessons with Britto and refers to him as “The Rick,” said, “He’s introduced me to new musical concepts. He’s… an invaluable resource to my development as a jazz musician,” said Van Duyne.”
Lessons are open forums for students to work on their own projects, developing arrangements, transcriptions and melodies. Van Duyne himself focuses on solo structure, but finds that Britto has intensified his passion for other aspects of music. “He makes it so your thirst for knowledge is increased.”
The sophomore has been playing jazz alto saxophone for nine years. Because of his history in the medium, he’s found that he has a “strong basis in jazz harmony.”
“And once you have a strong basis in jazz harmony, you can effectively converse with Rick about music, and build upon your musical foundation with the concepts that Rick teaches you. That’s when Rick really starts to respect you,” said Van Duyne.
In addition to teaching at Wheaton College, Britto teaches at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, offers private lessons in his home, fronts the Skyliners Big Band and plays “gigs.”
However, Britto enjoys his work at Wheaton College the most.
“Wheaton is a community,” he said. “We all know each other. At the university, there’s a wide diversity of people that don’t have much community because there’s too many of [them]… Comparatively, [Wheaton] is an aesthetic place to work. And also, [Wheaton] has a standard code… that doesn’t exist in reality at a larger university.”
Wheaton students appreciate Rick Britto’s instruction as much as he appreciates their academic honesty.
Andrew Dominello, a sophomore pianist who took lessons with Rick Britto his freshman year and played in the jazz ensemble his first three semesters said, “What I love about Rick is that he really is just a wealth of knowledge about jazz. He knows so much about its history, about the theoretical intricacies. And he’s really enthusiastic, which is awesome.”
Van Duyne expressed the same sentiment. “It’s never quiet [during lessons], because Rick’s always telling a story… He’s always engaged.”
However, Dominello found that Britto’s teaching style was, at times, hard to understand.
“His brilliance in jazz studies made it difficult. Don’t get me wrong – challenge is great. Sometimes, though, I did feel like it was going over my head… He’s so quick, and I had trouble keeping up.”
Van Duyne also acknowledged that Britto sometimes overloaded instrumentalists with work. “He tries to make it seem like you don’t know anything, so that you want to know everything. But what you have to do is take everything Rick says with a grain of salt and understand that his teaching style is to first make sure you understand that you’re the pupil, and that you’re here to learn.”
Perhaps the reason Britto expects so much from his students is because his instructor expected so much of him. His uncle, the second alto saxophonist in The Skyliners Big Band, trained him first. Britto’s uncle “threw [him] to the lions” during rehearsals and performances by forcing him to play and solo over songs he barely knew. Even though he practiced, he never felt he practiced enough, at least for his uncle, who “quickly grew tired of [Britto]” and resigned as Britto’s teacher.
“He said, ‘Okay, you’re not going to do what I want you to do, so I’m going to send you to the lead alto player of the band…’ Who turned out to be my full-time teacher for most of my life: Lionel Schwartz.”
Even though his mentors and uncles have since passed away, Britto still plays in the Big Band. “The lineage has all passed down to me now,” he said.
Britto encourages his students to step out of their comfort zones just as his uncle encouraged him to when he was young.
“Rick… encouraged everybody to solo a lot. Though I never felt really comfortable about my soloing, I was always happy to hear him say, ‘You should solo,’” said Dominello. “Which is cool, because that’s how you build chops.”
Both students acknowledged that Britto has helped them become better musicians.
“[He] helps me temper my ear with theoretical knowledge so that I can begin to hear more and more complicated passages, and then play through them on my horn,” said Van Duyne.
Even though Dominello does not take lessons currently, and is taking a break in order to concentrate on his English major and his presidency of two clubs, Amnesty International and Songwriting Club, he does not regret his lessons with Britto.
“His level of brilliance in the field of jazz is just unbelievable. He truly loves music, and if you’re willing to put in the time and the unbridled effort into working with him, you’re going to get a lot out of it.”
Britto definitely does love music. His musical heroes are John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and McCoy Tyner. He practices between five and six hours a day. Van Duyne imagined that he “plays sax in his free time, and when he wasn’t playing sax, he was thinking about playing sax.”
Britto may be playing all the time, but he plays a variety of different styles in order to avoid boredom. “Music is like the palette of your tongue – what appeals to you today, you hate tomorrow. And if you had to eat it five times in a row, you’d puke.”
Why does he play music, then?
Britto said, “[Music] is an emotional release for me. I don’t look at it as something unnecessary. It’s like breathing. It’s like food… I often tell people that if I didn’t have music, I would probably be going to a psychiatrist once a week.”
At Wheaton College, Britto has inspired students to love music as much as he does.
Van Duyne plays music “because it’s a vehicle for [his] personal exploration,” while Dominello plays music because “it’s a great stress reliever, it’s beautiful, and music is a common language.”
Britto has made a humongous impact on music students at Wheaton College, providing them with knowledge and inspiring them with passion.