A man, his clarinet and the lake
Travelers going up and down the Lake Michigan bluff at East Water Tower Road, which rises above the North Point snack bar, may often see a pleasant sight – and more often just hear pleasing sounds.
Dominic Musarra plays his clarinet on the bluff there nearly every day. Comfortably seated in a camp chair, his feet planted on a metal music stand, Musarra practices show tunes and pop standards from the '40s and '50s until it's time to work on property he owns in the city.
Musarra played a couple Gershwin tunes, "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "Someone to Watch Over Me," one morning while this author sat on the grass, enjoying both the music and the view of our spectacular lake.
"People standing by me while I play makes me nervous," the 77-year-old says with an easy laugh. "I'm not a musician. It's a hobby that relaxes me. Playing here, I can take in the beauty of the lake and also appreciate the Milwaukee weather, which I never did when I lived here."
Musarra grew up in Milwaukee and graduated from Riverside High, but has lived in Memphis since 1964. He and wife Beverly operated a BBQ there called Three Little Pigs until 2001, when the couple sold the business and retired.
"We'd get pork shoulders and put them in a big pit, slow-cook them over charcoal and wood, the old-fashioned way," he says.
Musarra regularly travels to Milwaukee to maintain his rental property, one on Park Place and another on Weil Street near North Avenue, which is property his parents originally bought in 1941. He has two other properties that he purchased himself, but stays in a flat in the Weil Street building because it was his parents' apartment, and is still filled with their things.
"It's comforting to know it's all still there. I'm old fashioned that way," he says.
Musarra has been coming back to Milwaukee, mostly for a month at a time every year, since he left in the '60s, first to help his parents and later to care for the family property they left him. His father passed in 1989 and his mother three years later.
"Italian people are connected to their parents; my wife has always said, 'Take care of your parents first,'" Musarra says.
Musarra has been playing his clarinet for five years. He bought it at a yard sale in Memphis with a son-in-law who regularly goes rummaging.
"They wanted $20 for it, but I only had $10," says Musarra, who bought his music book of pop standards shortly thereafter.
His goal is to play at his church in Memphis but the monsignor has told him he's not ready.
"Even though I've been rejected a couple times, it's still my goal. And the music director doesn't want anybody to play unless they're really good. It's because the acoustics are so good in the church, but those songs are so simple, compared to this stuff, it's just whole notes," says Musarra.
It's clear Musarra will not be deterred. He even played his clarinet in the church by himself one night when nobody was standing around to make him nervous.
Working on both the Lake Michigan bluff and at home in Memphis, Musarra continues to build his musical chops.
When in Milwaukee, he often enjoys Jazz in the Park, but admits the music there is often "a little too strong" for him.
"I wouldn't call it beautiful, but I sure do admire their ability. Young people like that who can pick up an instrument in a couple years, it shows a high intelligence," he says.
When he was about 10 years old, Musarra took drum lessons at Patti Brothers on what is now North Martin Luther King Drive. (Sam and Santo Patti opened their music store in 1924 but also sold their own line of accordions, handmade in Italy, and Santo was a professional accordion player.)
"I had a black drum teacher – he was very good and quite famous at the time, as I recall. He started everybody drumming on a cigar box and, if you could afford a drum, then you graduated to a snare. I couldn't afford it and stopped taking lessons after a year," says Musarra, whose brother Frank turned out to be an accomplished trumpet player.
Musarra says that Patti Brothers was a very popular place for kids to take music lessons. He recently ran into a drum player in a band at the Italian Community Center – a man about his age – who took lessons there, too, which of course pleased Musarra.
Musarra had some more experience with music in high school, playing snare drum in the arena marching band.
Although he says he has no "improv ability," Musarra enjoys reading notes. If a wind comes up and turns the page on his music book, he has to stop playing.
"Taking up the clarinet in my retirement has been a miracle in disguise or whatever you want to call it. It keeps the mind sharp. I play long tones every day to improve my air capacity. All the schools around here should start programs for the retired. You want something to do? Here's a clarinet I'll rent you and give you lessons. It would keep people fresh," Musarra says.
Beverly is now on oxygen which makes travel difficult, but Musarra calls his wife in Memphis everyday he's gone. Their seven kids all own houses within a two-mile radius of their home.
Musarra will soon return to Memphis, all the apartments have been rented out again and there are just a few repairs left to make.
"I'll go home, even though the weather is so nice here," Musarra says, with that easy laugh again. "My wife tells me she can't even stick her head out of the house in Memphis."
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