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A musical, jazzy life

Moorhead man has played with the Jimmy Dorsey Band, Glen Miller Orchestra, among others

By Carol Stender

John DiFiore of Moorhead is giving back.

The 81-year-old, known for his musical career, is mentoring students at Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo.

John DiFiore of Moorhead has instructed students and also played in multiple bands over the years. He first started playing the saxophone at age 12 and developed a passion for the instrument a couple years later. The saxophone has been a big part of his life ever since. Contributed photo

DiFiore has a special connection with one of his students - it’s his sixth grade, saxophone playing grandson.

The position is voluntary and part-time but it’s a great way to connect with youth and introduce them to music.

Like his grandson, DiFiore started playing saxophone at an early age. Since the Catholic school DiFiore attended in Queens NY (Bishop Lakes High School) didn’t have an extensive music program, DiFiore’s father hired a private saxophone teacher to instruct him. DiFiore was just 12 years old.

He admits he was more interested in baseball at the time, but two years later, at age 14, “something clicked,” he said. DiFiore has had a passion for the instrument ever since.

“As a saxophone player, you have to play ‘doubles,’” he said. Doubles means more than one instrument. DiFiore also learned to play the flute and clarinet.

Soon he was performing with show bands in the Catskill Mountains. All summer, from July 4 to Labor Day Weekend, he performed a different show each night.

“You get a lot of experience learning to site-read doing that,” he said.

DiFiore attended the Manhattan School of Music and, when the school didn’t offer a saxophone major, he majored in clarinet, instead. He pursued his master’s degree and did finish all the schooling but he never completed his thesis.

“Technically, I don’t have my master’s,” he said.

He went on the road with his musical abilities and performed with the Jimmy Dorsey Band led by Lee Castle. One of their performances, at Breezy Point Lodge in Pequot Lakes, MN, was a special time for him. It’s where he met his wife, Susan.

Susan’s uncle and aunt had seen a hockey game in the Twin Cities and were on their way to the Fargo-Moorhead area when their car crashed. Her uncle, a local TV executive in Fargo, was killed, and her aunt was hospitalized for some time. Susan took care of her aunt and uncle’s nine children as her aunt recuperated. During this time, she went to Breezy Point... and met DiFiore.

Eventually, she moved to New York while DiFiore continued his musical career performing with the Glen Miller Orchestra under the direction of Buddy DeFranco. It was a highlight to work in Las Vegas and also appear on the Jackie Gleason show, he said. DiFiore also performed with the Broadway show Mame on the road.

Through all the places he’s traveled, however, it seems Minnesota left a good impression and one he wanted to keep.

In 1971, he and Susan returned to the area to visit her parents. As the couple drove from New York to Moorhead, they made a stop in St. Cloud looking for a motel to stay in before completing their journey. But there was no room available.

“The clerk said he would call the hotel down the road to check on available rooms,’ DiFiore said. “They don’t do that in New York.”

He was impressed with the niceness of the area and, after the couple married in 1972, they moved to Moorhead,

“And we’ve been here ever since,” he said.

DiFiore has been a fixture in the local music scene. He’s played with local bands, and also taught music at Mayville State University and at Glyndon High School (GHS). In 1979-1980, with enrollment declining at GHS, he was let go, which, he says, was a blessing.

“I really didn’t know how to discipline junior high kids,” he said. “I wasn’t meant to be a junior high band instructor.”

John DiFiore performing a sax solo in The Kicks Band of Fargo-Moorhead. Contributed photo

But he does have a way of mentoring his craft to young musicians.

He worked on musical residencies through the North Dakota Council of Art at different schools throughout North Dakota during the week. On weekends, he performed with bands.

He continued to teach as an adjunct from 1987 to 2010 at Minnesota State University-Moorhead, and also taught at Concordia College and Valley City State University. And he worked with the Pelican Rapids woodwind sections from 1997 to 2011, when he retired.

Besides his role as an instructor, DiFiore also performed with various bands, including Mike and the Monsters, a rhythm and blues band.

Susan never played an instrument, but from 1989-2007, she worked for a Clay County judge.

DiFiore may not be teaching music full-time, but he continues to practice every day and he performs.

He is a member of The Kicks Band of Fargo-Moorhead. The group works with students, and they perform.

It’s easy to see how much he enjoys playing his woodwinds.

“Most people golf,” he said. “I don’t. I enjoy playing.”

He also performs a couple of times a year at Side Street Bar and Grill.

Jazz is an art that has a growing audience, he said. During the 1960s and 1970s, schools began bringing jazz into their music programs. The result is an increasing amount of people who love the music.

And it’s something that, after high school, those individuals will turn to music to listen and enjoy and, perhaps, continue to play their instruments.

The DiFiore’s have two sons and six grandchildren. Their sons started out playing instruments...

“But hockey took over,” he smiled.

He has enjoyed seeing his children involved with sports. And cheered them on when their Moorhead Spuds have competed at the state tournament. Now the couple enjoys seeing their grandchildren involved with sports and with music.

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