Modern jazz alto saxophonist Al Belletto, who enjoyed a long career in New Orleans as both a bandleader and a featured sideman, died Dec. 26, 2014, at his home in Metairie after a long illness. He was 86.
Mr. Belletto was born in New Orleans. As a student at Warren Easton High School, he already was working as a professional musician. He continued to study music at Loyola University, and eventually earned a master's degree from Louisiana State University.
Beyond the classroom, Mr. Belletto learned music – he was an early fan of bebop in a city that favored more traditional jazz – by listening and playing. Even as he earned his undergraduate degree, he worked on Bourbon Street, sometimes providing musical accompaniment for strippers. In the 1940s, he played with Louis Prima, Sharkey Bonano, and the Dukes of Dixieland.
He would go on to front his own combos and big band. In the 1950s, via connections made in New York, he was signed to Capitol Records. Capitol released his "Sounds and Songs" in 1955, followed by "Half and Half" in 1956 and "Whisper Not" in 1957.
In 1958, the prominent bandleader Woody Herman recruited Mr. Belletto and his sextet for a State Department-sponsored tour of Central and South America.
Back in New Orleans, Mr. Belletto became the entertainment director for the Playboy Club, booking bands and performing in the French Quarter franchise of the national chain. After hearing a teenage drummer named Johnny Vidacovich at a collegiate stage band competition, he offered him a job with the Playboy Club's jazz combo; Vidacovich is now one of the city's most respected drummers.
Mr. Belletto also served a lengthy tenure as the director of famed trumpeter Al Hirt's Big Band. Other prominent musicians who worked alongside him early in their careers include Ellis Marsalis, John Mahoney, Bill Huntington, Michael Pellera, Richard Payne and Rick Trolsen.
Along the way, Mr. Belletto earned the nickname Coach; his 1973 album was titled "Coach's Choice."
He was among the organizers of the International Jazz Festival in 1968 and 1969, the precursor of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which launched in 1970. According to his family, Mr. Belletto insisted that black musicians be featured at the festival, and receive pay equal to that of white musicians.
Years later, he also was involved in the founding of the French Quarter Festival.
Mr. Belletto released his final full-length album, "Jazznocracy," for Louisiana Red Hot Records in 1998. Credited to the Al Belletto Big Jazz Band, it was recorded live at New Orleans' Christ Church Cathedral in August 1997 with a 16-piece band that included Trolsen, Vidacovich and Mahoney.
Survivors include his wife, Linda; a son, Brad Belletto; and two grandchildren.
The New Orleans Musicians Union Hall at 2401 Esplanade Ave. will host a celebration of Mr. Belletto's life on Saturday, Jan. 3, from 2 to 4 p.m. In lieu of flowers, his family asks that donations be made to Local 174-496 Altruist Fund, which provides assistance to musicians in need.