Albert Vessa, a West Hempstead musician, composer and teacher who shined shoes as a teenager to pay for clarinet lessons and later played in an Army band before opening his own music school and store, has died.
The cause was complications after a fall about a month ago. He died July 3 at the Hospice House in East Northport, according to his daughter Debra Vessa of East Northport. He was 90.
Born in 1928 in Brooklyn to Italian immigrant parents, Vessa at age 15 wanted to learn the clarinet but his parents didn’t want to pay unless he was serious about the lessons. He began shining shoes in front of a candy store to earn enough money to fund them himself. A year later, he formed his own swing band.
“The music of the time influenced him,” Debra Vessa said.
Vessa attended what’s now known as the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, where he met his wife, Virginia, when they were 17 and she was studying photography. They married when they were 22 and he was drafted into the Army three months later during the Korean War.
He sang and played the saxophone, flute and clarinet in an Army band while he was stationed in Germany for two years. The military also enrolled him in music schools while he was there.
“They actually became popular,” Debra Vessa said of the band. “It wasn’t just playing for the Army, it was playing for the people.”
Vessa returned to New York and worked with his brothers-in-law at a service station where he did vehicle bodywork. He began teaching music on the side and eventually opened Al Vessa Music Center & Conservatory in 1965 in West Hempstead. Two years later, he moved the store and school to a bigger location in Franklin Square, where it operated until he retired in 1990 at the age of 62.
“It’s very nice to grow up with music. During the holidays you hear people playing the piano,” his daughter said.
She said her father’s students over the years have recalled his dedication and patience and said he inspired them to pursue music. He taught piano, guitar, saxophone, flute, clarinet, bass guitar and bass violin and eventually hired other teachers for other instruments as his wife worked in the store.
Debra Vessa said he taught her to play the piano when she was 7 years old and began instructing her sister, Linda, when she was 3.
“I’d be practicing and he’d be upstairs in the house and he’d be shouting ‘B flat!’ ” Debra Vessa recalled, laughing. “And he’d come down the stairs with this look on his face and say, ‘Can’t you hear it?’ ”
“No one wanted to practice when he was home,” she joked. “I couldn’t hear it, honestly.”
Vessa also composed songs and self-published several music books, including “Guitar Chord Consultant” and “Al Vessa’s Encyclopedia of Barre Chords,” through his Coast to Coast Publications company.
“He felt he could write a book that would help students to learn better,” Debra Vessa said.
In addition to his daughter Debra, Vessa is survived by his wife, Virginia Vessa of West Hempstead; daughter Linda Vessa Carey of Cold Spring Harbor; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
The family received visitors at Franklin Funeral Home in Franklin Square. The funeral took place at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in West Hempstead, and burial was at Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton.