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Three generations of jazz: The Bruno family loves to perform

A love of music has been passed down in the family for generations.

Joe Bruno Sr.
Joe Bruno Sr.
Photo by Ian Swaby
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For Joe Bruno Sr. and Joe Bruno Jr., a Father's Day evening spent in the ambiance of Cassariano eatery in Venice, Florida, was just another day in their lives as musicians.

While the Bruno family has been performing at the eatery since 2014, their lineup spans three generations of fathers and sons, with the performers frequently including Joe Bruno Sr.; Joe Bruno Jr.; Joe Bruno Jr.'s, wife Christine Allen-Bruno; and their son, Nick Bruno.

Music has been a part of Joe Bruno Sr.'s life as long as he can remember. 

In 1937, Joe Bruno Sr. sneaked into the attic where his father, Tony Bruno, stored his eleven musical instruments, and blew into the trumpet. He expected to find himself in trouble, but as his father entered the room, he simply inquired as to whether he liked the instrument. 

Joe Bruno Sr. replied that he did.

“That’s what you’re going to play,” his father said.

Today, at 96 years old, Bruno is still performing at three to four events per week, and at seven to 10 during high season.

“People say, it’s in your genes,” said Joe Bruno Jr. “My philosophy is being part of a musical family, the opportunity is there. That’s why we play music, because we have the opportunity.”

Joe Bruno Sr.

Tony Bruno was “the big guy in Boston,” said Joe Bruno Jr. — a contractor and orchestra leader who led singers like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Wayne Newton.

Therefore, he said, it was only natural that his son, and grandson, would be influenced by his work.

“It was really neat seeing (my grandfather) working with these guys like they were all buddies, because they had done so many shows together,” Joe Bruno Jr. said.

Tony Bruno also performed at Cocoanut Grove, before the location was destroyed by the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history in 1942 and he relocated to Boston’s Latin Quarter.

Joe Bruno Sr. began playing for Tony Bruno’s band while he was in high school, alongside many renowned performers. Yet even outside of concerts, music still colored his life.

“There was music all the time, and on Saturday afternoon in the den, (my father) would put on the opera, and we had to sit there and listen. He made sure we did that.”

Joe Bruno Sr. plays trumpet at Senior Friendship Centers.
Photo by Ian Swaby

Music was still his obligation after he enlisted in the Navy at age 17, submitting his age as 18, and served as a bugler on the USS Midway. He left the Navy after the war ended, before returning during the Korean War and then becoming stationed in Jacksonville, Florida. 

While sailing in a sailboat down the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, he was struck by the beauty he saw and resolved to live in Florida, although it would take 20 years for him to make his return. 

Joe Bruno Jr.

Joe Bruno Jr. also became absorbed in the musical scene that surrounded him, his father, and his grandfather.

“As a kid, I would grow up into all this, and I would see all these (famous) people, and all this music was just going into my ears,” he said. 

Joe Bruno Jr. and Joe Bruno Sr. perform at Senior Friendship Centers.
Photo by Ian Swaby

At age 16, he received a bass and began lessons, playing in rock bands with his cousins. While living in Florida, at age 17, he was asked by Joe Bruno Sr. to fill in for another player at a New Year's Eve concert.

It was the first time he’d ever played in a jazz band, but the experience stuck with him.

“At that point, I decided I wanted to play that kind of music,” he said.

Within six months, he was playing in a band with his late sister Anne Marie Bruno.

His path then converged even more closely with his father's. 

He’d known he wanted to be part of the Navy ever since watching a sign-off on late night TV in which the Navy played "Eternal Father, Strong To Save." He resolved to audition for the U.S. Navy Band on trumpet. 

Although he could play by ear, he hadn’t learned to read music, and ended up needing to practice more than 60 hours a week to graduate.

“If I didn't, I would have been on a ship chipping paint,” he said. “That was the threat. But I was following in (my father's) footsteps.”

He went on to perform for four years in the Navy band. 

During the 1980s, Bruno became a stockbroker, and although he made a six-figure salary, it left him with little time for music. Eventually, he made up his mind to return to what he most loved.

“When you’re good at something, why not do it?” he said.

Nick Bruno

Like his grandfather, Nick Bruno couldn't resist trying out the instruments he found in his home. 

Joe Bruno Jr. was pleased when he came home from performing one day to find Nick Bruno playing the drum set, having assembled it on his own.

“Drums was the completion of the triangle for a full rhythm section,” Nick Bruno said.

Nick Bruno went on to offer his first public performance at the age of 8, alongside his father. At the same age, he went on to perform with John LaPorta and Jack Peterson, two well-known educators at the Berklee College of Music, before he had his first official drum lesson at age 10.

“I was growing into it at a very, very early age, having professional musicians as parents, my grandfather and everything, and so being born into the household with all of that influence, it was hard not to get involved,” he said.

Now, the 30-year-old plays instruments including tuba, trombone, euphonium, trumpet, piano and organ. 

He received a master’s degree in percussion from University of South Florida but said he felt drawn to law enforcement, and ultimately chose a career with the Sarasota Police Department, around which his family arranges their performances.

“I ended up loving it,” he said. 

He also teaches the drum line at Riverview High School, and is a member of the Venice Symphony Orchestra.  

Christine Allen-Bruno

In 2020, the Bruno band brought on its newest member.

Although Christine Allen-Bruno had limited experience playing jazz in college, she'd stayed mainly confined to classical music after she married Joe Bruno Jr. in the early 1990s. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that.

After a church at which she'd been planning to perform closed down, she decided to hop onto the piano in one of her family's livestreams. 

"I'm having a great time playing jazz with them, and I'm still learning," she said. "I'm thrilled that I had this opportunity that in a way, forced me to jump into the deep end of the pool with jazz."

Allen-Bruno, who majored in piano performance, and theory and composition at Georgia State University, also taught piano to Nick Bruno when he was young, and helps the group with tasks that include packing and organization.

Nick Bruno and Christine Allen-Bruno prepare for a show at the Asolo Repertory Theatre.
Courtesy photo

"She's like the glue," said Joe Bruno Jr. "She's an amazing musician."

She is currently teaching Brian Rudolph, the son of Anne Marie Bruno and his son Cameron Rudolph, the great-grandson of Joe Bruno Sr.

Now, she's joined the lineup of performs at events in the community. 

A few of the numerous organizations for which the Brunos have performed include the Ringling Circus, Sarasota Orchestra, and Circus Sarasota, the Sarasota Jazz Festival, and the RocknRoll Revival in Brooksville, Florida. Since 1990, Joe Bruno Sr. has played at least once a week at Senior Friendship Centers.

"He's a phenomenal performer," said performer Joni Adno, a Sarasota resident who leads a Joni Mitchell tribute project. "He's like Jaco reincarnated." 

However, carrying on the legacy becomes harder and harder, said Joe Bruno Jr., due to changing conditions in the economy. Thanks to the recording industry, he said, public interest in live performances is declining, while wages rise at much slower rates for musicians than they do for other workers.

The family has taken up live-streaming on YouTube every Thursday, as a way to bring their music straight to listeners' homes, with participation by all four family members.

One option he'll never take is to give up, he said.

"We're not in this for the money," he said. "It's about carrying on a legacy."



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

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