Staton is well acquainted with the feeling of jazz. Over the course of his century on earth, he’s been steeped in it. Born on Valentine’s Day, 1915, Staton’s musical life began with the strains of his mother’s player piano and 78 discs of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. He cites a Johnny Hodges cut on an Ellington big band record played off the family’s Victrola as the inspiration for his life-long infatuation with the saxophone.
A singer in his church’s gospel choir, Staton’s introduction to playing jazz came when the group’s sponsor brought in a full band’s worth of equipment, along with charts of popular music. First gravitating towards to the drums, he admits it was the frustration of having to a pack up his kit while his bandmates left to flirt with women after gigs that led him to commit to the saxophone.
Staton came up in Pittsburgh during a time that defined the city as a great source of jazz talent. He played in the first ensemble Art Blakey ever formed, alongside legendary pianist Erroll Garner. Staton recalls the anxiety of watching the young Garner casually risk his gifted hands as he indulged his other great love, high school football. The lack of opportunity for a young black man in segregated Pittsburgh—as well as the persistent lack of venues for jazz groups—lead Staton to leave the Steel City and find his fortune gigging on the East Coast. Along the way, he encountered a recent high school graduate with magnetic talent in Connecticut—one Horace Silver—and watched fellow Westinghouse High School graduates Billy Strayhorn and Ahmad Jamal pen iconic compositions.