Roger Prieto: Jazz God

Features  /  by Sahil Malhotra '19   /  January 26, 2018

Meet Roger Prieto. He is the heart and soul of Lawrenceville’s jazz program. Every Wednesday morning, he brings his teaching experience to the podium, ready to conduct the Lawrenceville’s upper-level Jazz Band. Prieto has had an extensive career at Lawrenceville, having taught private trumpet lessons at the School since 1994. He also has directed the Jazz Band for over half a decade.

However, Lawrenceville is only one chapter of Prieto’s career. In previous years, one would have found him at the most popular jazz clubs in Philadelphia—probably on stage with other musicians. Arguably, his conducting skills are second to only his trumpet playing. Here is how Roger Prieto got his start:

Prieto credits his parents with inspiring him to be a musician. When Prieto was a young child, his parents purchased vinyl records as soon as they reached the market. Prieto reflected that while he and his parents “were not musically inclined, [they] heard music all the time.” Referring to world-renowned jazz musicians, Prieto said, “We heard the ‘greats.’” Listening to these recordings inspired Prieto to play jazz music himself. Although he enjoys music of all kinds, Prieto noted, “I found myself playing jazz, improvising.”

He then continued his studies with prominent trumpeters in his area. While some were jazz musicians, others specialized in the classical genre. For example, Prieto credited Samuel Krauss, the co-principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1958–1968, with being a large influence. However, he stated that much of his musical education came from practical experience. “A large part of my education [was] going into clubs and running jam sessions at different clubs throughout Philly,” Prieto said.

Jazz nightclubs in particular played a prominent role in Prieto’s career. One in particular, the Ortlieb’s Jazz House, was Prieto’s main venue for 10 years. Importantly, these jazz clubs tended to allow amateur musicians to take the stage alongside more experienced professionals. Especially on Sunday nights, Prieto said, “There would be about 10 guys signing this sheet to play drums, and seven guys trying to play piano. We gave everybody a tune; [...] there [were] all kinds of excitement.”

Prieto wasn’t a lone wolf; he used to lead a sextet. Known as the “Roger Prieto Band,” it consisted of Prieto on the trumpet; a rhythm section of the piano, bass, and drums; and two interchangeable brass instruments. Prieto said that by playing tunes by Horace Silver and Oliver Nelson, two of his favorite jazz arrangers, his sextet sounded like a “miniature big band.” According to Prieto, the interplay between the horns in his sextet had the same sound quality as a jazz band twice the size. With his band, Prieto played in a number of prominent concert series. Highlights included the Penn State Jazz Festival, the Willingboro Jazz Festival, and the Jenkintown Festival of the Arts. Prieto often gained significant publicity from these events. Once, his picture was “put up in the Sunday Enquirer,” which prompted “people who [he] hadn’t seen in twenty years to call [him].”

Becoming a professional jazz musician prompted Prieto to think about music differently. At times, performances at clubs felt to him like doing chores. However, Prieto was soon introduced to society gigs: private events like weddings and bar mitzvahs. He began to perform in more society gigs, in part due to a decline in jazz club attendance. “Live music is not what it once was,” Prieto explained. Consequently, he felt compelled to perform in society gigs to supplement his income from jazz clubs.

Prieto originally came to Lawrenceville 24 years ago to teach all brass instruments. He was originally an adjunct teacher. However, After a few years, teachers of french horn and other brass instruments joined Lawrenceville’s faculty, leaving Prieto responsible for private trumpet instruction.

In addition, Prieto became involved with the jazz program—and expanded it to where it is today. Prieto said that Lawrenceville’s jazz band was originally “ragtag,” and there were “no saxophones, no trumpets, no trombones.” Prieto continued, “At one point, [the jazz band] had fizzled out; [...] it almost disintegrated.” However, Prieto noted that Lawrenceville’s jazz program has grown since he took over. Now, there is a student playing every available instrument in the Jazz Band. Furthermore, Prieto noted that the lower-level Lab Band serves as a “feeder program,” in which II Formers and inexperienced students can improve before joining the Jazz Band the following year.

Prieto has students at other schools too; however, he has recently turned down several performance opportunities, some of which he had accepted in the past. His increasing dedication to Lawrenceville is partly why—and his dedication shows. Roger Prieto’s influence has undoubtedly revolutionized the jazz program at Lawrenceville.