Joseph J. Briscuso, a longtime beloved Towson University music faculty member who was an accomplished saxophonist and clarinetist in his own right, died March 1 of kidney failure at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The Towson resident was 80.
“Joe was a terrific saxophone player — world-class — without a doubt, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that,” said Dr. David J. Marchand, a longtime friend and colleague who chaired the Towson University Department of Music from 1979 to his retirement in 2000. “He was also a terrific teacher and of a faculty of 60, he was one of the top three or four.”
Edward S. Palanker, a Towson colleague, was a 50-year Baltimore Symphony Orchestra clarinetist and bass clarinetist.
“From what I understood from his students he was one of the best saxophone teachers and music teachers they ever had,” said Mr. Palanker, who lives in Phoenix in Baltimore County. “He was both a fine musician and a fine teacher.”
Joseph James Briscuso, son of Joseph B. Briscuso, an electrician, and his wife, Dorothy Briscuso, a homemaker, was born and raised in St. Louis.
After graduating from Riverview Gardens High School in St. Louis, Dr. Briscuso earned a bachelor’s degree in music in 1961 from the St. Louis Institute of Music. He earned two master’s degrees from Millikin University, both in 1963, in woodwinds and music education.
In 1963, he married the former Marian Grayce Schneller, a vocal music teacher, and the couple settled in Piper City, Illinois, before moving to Iowa City, Iowa, where he obtained his Ph.D. in music education in 1972 from the University of Iowa.
After teaching elementary and junior high school Dr. Briscuso moved to Wheaton, Illinois, where he taught at a local high school until 1975 when he joined the faculty of what is now Towson University, teaching saxophone and music education.
“I got to know Joe when he came to Towson in 1975, and in addition to loving football and baseball, he played a classic sax and as a solo sax, a lot of French music," Dr. Marchand, a Towson resident, said.
“The students loved him, and even though he put a lot of pressure on them, I never received one complaint about Joe. He was always a tough but fair teacher,” he said. “When it came to music education, he trained teachers how to teach instrumental music, and then supervised their student teaching, and there was none better.”
“He was my sax professor,” said Brett D. Taylor of Dayton in Howard County, who studied with Dr. Briscuso in the mid-1990s. “He was able to create a lesson out of every life experience. For instance, he taught us how to attend a grown-up party. He and his wife gave a Christmas party for the saxophone students. We had to dress up, bring a date and behave."
Mr. Taylor, who taught music for 20 years, recalled Dr. Briscuso’s patience and wisdom.
“The biggest thing was that Joe figured out everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and how swift a kick in the pants would help them to improve. I wasn’t very good when I started at Towson, but he instilled a love of performance in me and I walked out of there loving it," he said. “He taught thousands of students and I know he made a lasting impact on them and me.”
Said Mr. Palanker: “He was so good that when he was a teenager he played in a professional jazz band. He made a living playing as a kid. He was great at improvisation, and he taught his kids how to improvise."
Familiarly known as “Mr. B” by his students, he was revered not only for his teaching skills, but also for a mischievous sense of humor.
One day in class Dr. Briscuso asked a student for the definition of staccato, and when they replied, “staccato,” he replied, “If you can find a music dictionary that says the definition of staccato is short — I’ll eat the page!”
“Well, someone found one in an old music dictionary,” Mr. Taylor recalled in his eulogy. “True to his word, Doc came to master class that morning with some mustard, salt, pepper, pretzels, and plastic silverware, and feasted on that page.”
Mr. Palanker’s studio was near Dr. Briscuso’s.
“He had such a great sense of humor for which he was noted,” he said. “He’d knock on my door, walk in, and say something that left me hysterical.”
“While Doc was not stingy with laughter and jokes, he was pretty stingy with compliments about our playing,” Mr. Taylor recalled in his eulogy. “To get a compliment from Doc about your playing was truly a special thing. I think he did this so we knew he was really serious. I think I may have received two in my tenure.”