Jim Runfola - Performer
BMHOF Class of 2016
Jim Runfola has become the face of new big band in Buffalo over the past 25 years. So perhaps it’s shouldn’t be surprising to find out that his first saxophone idol wasn’t a big band guy at all; it was Clarence Clemons, the long-time “Big Man” in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
“I wanted to play like Clarence and my dad wanted me to play like Chuck Mangione’s sax player, Chris Vadala,” Runfola said in a recent interview.
And if you check on YouTube, you’ll find videos of his J.J. Swing big band performing its version of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”
Runfola is a sax player for all seasons, priding himself on his ability to play what is right for the occasion, whether it’s straight-from-the-charts big band swing or those kinds of rock blends.
Runfola grew up in Jamestown, where his father was a rock ‘n’ roll bass player. He started playing out with his father as a teenager, but also was involved in the Jamestown school programs. After graduating from high school in 1984, he went to Fredonia State, where he got his bachelors and master’s degrees in composition.
Since then, Runfola has worked out of Buffalo, creating a career of teaching, performing and composing. He made one of his first inroads into the Buffalo swing scene when he was invited to play with the Dick Mertle Big Band.
“He always made fun of my horns, though, because I played old horns,” Runfola joked.
The sax player spent a six-month stint touring with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the early 1990s. He auditioned live on stage during a performance.
“I sight-read the book that night, and I was in,” he said. “They did the same charts every night. But it was an experience … We played in Paris! This guy was having a party in Paris, and he flew us over for three days.”
The style was different than what he was used to doing with his own music.
“I’ve always had a different approach because I grew up listening to heavy metal,” he said. “I always had a harder edge to my sound, my approach. … I’m also into dissonance; what other people call dissonance, but it sounds good to me.”
But when he was playing with Dorsey or other chart-based bands, he could – literally – play it by the book.
“I’ve always prided myself on playing the gig, no matter what,” he said. “No matter where I am, I play that style. It wasn’t my band, so I play that style.”
Runfola went from the Dorsey band to starting his own group, J.J. Swing, in 1999, at the height of the swing dancing trend. Since then, he’s been able to put his own spin on big band swing with that group.
The group has recorded two CDs over the years and evolved to playing a broader selection of music, including a wide swath of rock and R&B.
Runfola has intertwined his band’s music with writing for the stage. He conceived and co-wrote the musicals “Zooma Zooma” (multiple productions) and “Crossroads Blues” for runs at MusicalFare and elsewhere and he conceived and wrote “The Big Band Theory: When Swing Was King” for the Kavinoky Theater. He arranged the music for “Jamestown Gals: The Music of Lucille Ball & Peggy Lee.”
In addition, he has been involved with performing with other musicals every year since 1994.
Runfola has also crossed over to perform with numerous rock bands, recording with Greg Lake (of Emerson, Lake & Palmer), Tom Sartori, Michael Oliver & Go Dog Go, Soul Hitchhiker, McCarthyizm, Jack Prybylski and the Vincent James Explosion.
He has performed with the Goo Goo Dolls, 10,000 Maniacs, Billy Sheehan, Bobby Lebel, the Rod Nickson Project and the Scintas.
He has also recorded and toured with Animal Planet, performing internationally in military bases from Kuwait to Korea.
Runfola has also been a teacher almost all of his adult life, going back to when he was a teaching assistant at Fredonia.
He was a part-time instructor at Erie Community College for 22 years before taking a full-time position there three years ago. He also leads and arranges for the college’s ECC Jazz Kats.
Runfola encourages his student musicians to get out into the wider world, playing off-campus gigs and sitting in with the pros whenever possible.
He said that his professional experience is one of the most important things he can bring to the classroom.
“I love sharing what I’ve done. I can give real life experience, I didn’t just read it out of a book,” he said. “When I talk about the Dorsey band, I played the original charts that Frank Sinatra sang to. When we talk about New Orleans, I lived and played on a river boat.”
Runfola has also been a quarterfinalist for the Grammy Award for educators and has been recognized by the New York State United Teachers for his teaching.
And he keeps on playing. After all, he’s a musician. It’s what he does.
And Runfola still has time to pursue more goals.
“I would love to play with Aerosmith,” he said. “Or the Stones.”