When Jack Pinto picked up his telephone to do this interview, he was about an hour away from getting on a plane to go to London. Pinto used to work in the financial industry, but a few years ago he put that aside to go to college at the College of New Jersey, majoring in music and spending his non-study time teaching, writing, arranging, and conducting choral music.
He has always been a musician, but now it is, quite literally, his life. He is the director of the Brothers in Harmony, a 60-plus choir of men that specializes in barbershop harmony. Pinto is also the baritone in the nationally prominent quartet known as Old School. He was on his way to London to serve as guest conductor for a group and to be a clinician at a master class or two.
Brothers in Harmony will present its fall show, “Musical Masterpiece XIV,” at Lawrence High School, on Saturday, October 17. The show will also include as guest performers the 2008 International Barbershop Quartet Champions, and the Liberty Oaks Chorus of Sweet Adelines International.
Barbershop singing is a cappella vocal music that employs closely harmonized four-part chordal singing; each note of the melody is harmonized in four parts. Most barbershop quartets have two tenors, a baritone and a bass, and most choruses harmonize in the same manner. According to Gage Averill, a University of Toronto professor who has written a book on the history of barbershop, “Four Parts, No Waiting: a Social History of American Barbershop Harmony,” the style grew out of the contacts between European (especially English and German) close-harmony styles as adapted by African American male vocal groups beginning in the 1800s. When barbershop began its ascent into American popular culture at the turn of the last century, it was associated almost exclusively with black male singing groups. Now, of course, the genre is multihued, albeit mostly white, and there are female groups that sing under the banner of Sweet Adelines.
Pinto, 42, was born and raised in Hamilton Square and graduated from Notre Dame High School. He calls himself a “barbershop brat” because he acquired his love for the genre at the knee of his grandfather, Frank. “I’ve been doing barbershop since I was a young kid,” says Pinto. “I’ve been a member of our organization for 30 years; and I was doing this type of singing for a few years before I even joined, so I’ve been in this my entire life.”
Frank Pinto, a pianist, was very active in charities, such as those sponsored by the Elks, in Hamilton Square. Pinto’s father, Jack Sr., was also a pianist. His mother, Joan, “despite her joking about how she can sing, doesn’t sing at all,” says the younger Jack Pinto. Pinto also has an older brother, Frank, who is a pianist.
“It’s a traditional Italian family,” Pinto says. “The names just get recycled from generation to generation. They don’t go that far.”
As a youth, Pinto was a Beatles fan. Through barbershop music, he says he “got as close to meeting one of the Beatles as possible without meeting one of the Beatles.” Here’s how it happened: Paul McCartney’s cousin, Carol, is a barbershop singer and aficionado, and Pinto was in Liverpool working with her group. “She played me a song that her father, who is Paul McCartney’s uncle, wrote. I brought it back here and we had it arranged and recorded and sang all the parts and gave it to her. In return for that, my brother and I went over to Liverpool and had dinner with Carol and her daughter, and they gave us lots of Beatles paraphernalia, such as home photos of Paul McCartney.”
To those involved, says Pinto, Brothers In Harmony is more than just a hobby or even a singing group. It is a community group as well, he says. There are competitive, even sporting aspects to barbershop singing. There are national and international competitions for this style held every year; there are 38,000 members of the Barbershop Harmony Society, which is based in Nashville, and there are 900 chapters worldwide.
Each year, the Hamilton Square Brothers compete in regional competitions, and they hope to make it to the world championships, which will be held in Philadelphia next year.
“It’s a brotherhood, a friendly organization, a fraternal organization,” Pinto says. “When you’re in it, you feel like you’re just one of the guys. We have doctors from Princeton, a retired brigadier general, people from all different varied backgrounds who just love to sing.”
Last year Brothers In Harmony moved officially to Hamilton Square from Easton, Pennsylvania. Pinto had lived near Easton while working for Dun and Bradstreet in the Lehigh Valley but he had moved back to this area in 2005.
Members of the group are as young as eight and as old as 81. When the group first moved to Hamilton Square, Pinto says, there were about 30 members. Now there are 62.
“Here we have potential to really grow our group,” Pinto says. “Since we have moved to Hamilton, and we still don’t have a lot of Hamilton natives here, we have doubled the size of our chorus.”
The group rehearses Wednesday nights in Hamilton. Members come from Ocean County, South Jersey, North Jersey, Delaware, Philadelphia, New York, and one man actually takes the train from Washington, D.C., Pinto says.
Brothers In Harmony is always accepting new members. “You don’t have to have a musical background at all. You just have to love to sing,” Pinto says. Aspiring singers are asked to audition, but it is more of an evaluation than a vetting-out process. “You don’t even have to know how to read music. When you come into our group, all you need is a desire to sing. We can teach you the rest.”
The October 17 show features a varied repertoire. Among the songs will be two by the Beatles (“Here, There, and Everywhere,” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”), as well as folk tunes such as “Shenandoah” and “Come Fly With Me,” a Frank Sinatra hit as popularized by Michael Buble. Brothers In Harmony also performs the Depression-era tune, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime,” reengineered to correspond with the post-Vietnam War era, as well as holiday songs for Christmas and Chanukah.
“We do like what you might call ‘typical barbershop music’ but we like to appeal to people of all different ages and walks of life,” says Pinto.
Barbershop Concert, Brothers in Harmony, Lawrence High School, 2525 Princeton Pike, Lawrenceville. Saturday, October 17, 7:30 p.m. “Musical Masterpiece XIV” features a chorus of more than 50 men. $20. 732-940-0224 or www.harmonize.com/brothers.