Through Jazz, ‘Dr. Joe’ Gives Back

The Shoreline Times | Published May 22, 2017
By Pam Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

As a dedicated cancer specialist at Yale University School of Medicine, Joseph G. Cardinale, M.D. cares for many patients in our community. But, as many of his patients and many in our community also know, as a man with a passion for jazz, “Dr. Joe” can also play guitar.

Performing as Dr. Joe & Friends, he’s joined by a network of jazz musicians for shows that have a dedicated following.

Although Dr. Joe & Friends are sought for gigs around the state and beyond, the Guilford resident, joined by an ever-evolving roster of professional jazz musicians, can also can be found playing in his hometown of 31 years every Sunday night. For nearly seven years now, Dr. Joe & Friends plays a standing Sunday Night Jazz gig at Ayuthai in Guilford—and the band packs the house.

On Saturday, June 3, for the sixth year in a row, Dr. Joe & Friends and some special guests will be performing at another regular gig: the annual Dr. Joe & Friends show at The Kate in Old Saybrook. The night is a huge hit with fans including many of those with lives saved by Joe’s caring medical work. Continuing another tradition, once again, Smilow Cancer Hospital will sponsor a free cocktail reception prior to the show.

Of course, Joe’s biggest fan—his wife of 37 years, Filomena—will be in the audience. Among those joining Dr. Joe and some of the area’s top professional musicians on stage will once again be the Cardinales’ daughter, Dr. Elise Cardinale, a singer who grew up loving jazz.

“It is a really wonderful event, as many of my patients attend and have the opportunity to see their doctor play music, and to see my daughter Elise sing for them. It really is very heartwarming,” says Joe. “It’s an opportunity for [them] to socialize, share stories and celebrate cancer survivorship.”

Elise and her dad will perform at The Kate with Darren Litzie, Fred Haas, Jeff Fuller, Ben Bilello, and special guests Donn Trenner and Gene Bertoncini. Video from a past show can be viewed at www.thekate.org

In addition to inheriting the music gene, Elise also followed her dad into the field of medicine.

“She has just received her PhD from Georgetown University in cognitive neuroscience and will be starting her career at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland,” her proud dad notes. “She has been doing research on psychopathy in children identifying areas in the brain that are potentially responsible for this behavior.”

For the record, Joe is a radiation oncologist on the full-time faculty as associate chief for network & outreach, Department of Therapeutic Radiology, Yale University School of Medicine and Smilow Cancer Hospital. He is also affiliated with Griffin Hospital in Derby. Joe assists patients across the cancer spectrum with a focus on caring for those with prostate cancer.

“I really care a lot about my patients,” says this dedicated doctor. “I try to spend a lot of time with them. A lot of times I see people when they’re told they have cancer and they’re coming in to see the doctor who’s going to treat them. If you care about a person as an individual, you start to see things from the same ground.”

The important practice of recognizing each patient as an individual includes taking into consideration their loved ones, as well, he says.

“Having cancer is a family’s problem,” says Joe. “When somebody is diagnosed, the people who love that individual are also affected by it. It’s really important to understand that, and treat people with the caring they deserve. That’s also why I’m so passionate about music. It all goes to that.”

But it wasn’t too long ago that Joe couldn’t have imagined himself performing as a jazz musician, much less leading a stellar group of musicians on stage at performances like the one coming up at The Kate.

“I picked up jazz guitar later in life,” says Joe. “I played rock and roll when I was kid and really did not understand music. In college, I figured it was time to knock off this foolishness and buckle down. I sold my guitar and didn’t play for 25 years.”

Then, one day, about 20 years ago, “I took I ride and bought a guitar,” says Joe. “I started just trying to learn by taking lessons. I met some people who were similar to my lifestyle, and we started a rock band. We did a lot of benefits. It was great. In terms of giving back to the community, it was really important to me.”

As Joe’s musicality progressed, “I wanted to get more sophisticated in music,” says Joe, who is particularly inspired by the great jazz musicians of the 1950s and 1960s.

As for making the leap from learning jazz to playing with the pros, Joe’s talent soon spoke for itself. Joe also hasn’t been afraid to advocate for others to help them along. In fact, the reason Dr. Joe & Friends began playing a regular live jazz gig at what may seem an odd venue—an authentic Thai restaurant tucked along Route 1 in Guilford—was due to Joe’s nature and inclination to want to help others.

“My personality is I really like to help people,” says Joe. “Well, when Ayuthai first opened, my wife and I went and we really enjoyed the food. But the restaurant was totally empty! We would go there and we would be the only people in there.”

Joe, his wife and their daughter (visiting home from college) continued to patronize the restaurant.

“The manager fell in love with Elise,” says Joe, laughing. “I told the owner, ‘My daughter sings, why don’t you think of hiring us and we’ll play here — people will come to hear us!’ People did come, and rest of that is history. I love playing every Sunday. I get different musicians every week and try and feature different people. Sometimes we do Brazilian music, sometimes straight-ahead jazz...There are so many really great musicians. You meet a lot of people.”

Fans of Dr. Joe & Friends arrive regularly from the shoreline, New Haven county, and beyond each Sunday night. Fans follow the latest news of who will be joining him to play at his website www.drjoeandfriends.com.

“I also have a newsletter I send out every Friday about who’s playing at the restaurant,” says Joe.

In developing the newsletter as an early form of publicity, Joe also found an opportunity to speak from the heart.

“One thing I did early on with the newsletter—I didn’t want to email people and say, ‘Please come and watch me play.’ That was self-serving to me. For no other reason but to give back to people, I started writing things—thoughts, advice. I’ll talk about what’s important in life and caring for other people. It’s a healing message, and I can’t tell you how much great feedback I’ve had.”

Many of Joe’s patients and their families are among his very first fans, which also helps explain his idea to perform as “Dr. Joe.”

“My whole thought was to be able to have my patients see me in a light that was different from me in the hospital, taking care of them with cancer,” he says. “It’s nice for them to see me as a person and to give something back to people. Obviously, I enjoy it, too! But it’s turned out most of my patients love it, as well. I am very proud of the music, but also the culture that I’ve been able to create in sharing and caring about others in so many ways.”

The Katharine Hepburn Theater, 300 Main Street, Old Saybrook, presents Dr. Joe & Friends featuring Dr. Elise Cardinale on Saturday, June 3, at 8 p.m.; tickets ($25) are available at 877-503-1286 or www.thekate.org. A free reception begins at 6:45 p.m.