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At 102, He Still Makes the Saxophone Swing

Fred Staton played with the greats and continues to get regular gigs

Fred Staton, Saxophone Player, celebrates 102nd birthday
Fred Staton says he's grateful and blessed that he is still performing.
William Glaser/Redux Pictures

Fred Staton didn't set out to become the world's oldest jazz musician. But at 102, it turns out that he is.

“I didn’t wait — it just happened,” Staton told the New York Times, describing how the day jobs he held for years to support his family kept his musical career from blossoming until he retired. Now, with waning strength and arthritic hands, he added, “I’m grateful and blessed that I can do it.” 

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Jazz is a musical genre that's kind to long-lived musicians. Staton’s accompanying pianist at a recent gig in midtown Manhattan was Bertha Hope, 80, widow of the jazz pianist and composer Elmo Hope. Staton plays these days with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, which includes Zeke Mullins, 91, on piano, and Jackie Williams, 84, on drums. One friend, 90-year-old saxophonist Jimmy Heath, likes to kid Staton: "When I grow up, I want to be you."

Born in Pittsburgh on Valentine's Day in 1915, Staton never made it as a headliner. But over the years he has played with many jazz greats who shared his Pittsburgh roots, such as Art Blakey, Roy Eldridge, Erroll Garner and Earl Hines. The widower has outlived all his siblings — including sister Dakota Staton, a jazz singer herself — as well as some of his five children.

And still he plays. 

“They don’t know they’re hearing the oldest working jazz musician in the world,” said one fan who slipped into a recent reception just to hear Staton. “I mean, how many triple-digit musicians are still gigging?”