No ordinary Joe: He’s a Guilford cancer doc, jazz guitarist and all-around good guy

The Shoreline Times | Published May 12, 2012
By Robert Pollack


Just call him Joe.

Dr. Joseph Cardinale, an oncologist at the Hospital of Saint Raphael for the past 26 years, is rarely referred to as Dr. Cardinale, Dr. Joseph or even Doc.

And though the jazz concert on a Friday night at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center before a packed house was billed as “Dr. Joe and Friends,” to his audience, filled with dozens of his former patients, he was what he has always been: Joe.

Joe was at The Kate to play jazz guitar with his ensemble that included players who have been part of the jazz scene for decades.

Before the concert, which had the crowd rocking in their seats and ended with a series of standing ovations, Joe’s drummer, Kenny Palmieri, 73, said backstage, “Some four years ago, I had a biopsy and was told I had cancer of the vocal cords. I was devastated.

“And then the phone rang. ‘Hi, Ken. This is Joe. I’m going to take good care of you. This will be a piece of cake.’

“He’s an unbelievable doctor. He talks to you as though he’s your best friend. And he was right; thanks to him, it was a piece of cake, and when he formed this band, I could hardly wait to join it. I had played the drums for many years with a number of well known bands, but gave it up to due to pressing family problems. I missed it and now, thanks to Joe, here I am.”

A number of former patients in the audience echoed the same theme. One of them, Tony Fusco of Branford, said surgery revealed a large malignant tumor on his prostate.

“Shortly after I came to, Joe called. ‘My name is Joe. I am your oncologist, and you are not going to die of prostate cancer,’ he said. And thanks to him, it’s 15 years later, and I am still here. I have never met anyone like him.”

Other ex-patients, who came out to see Joe play that night, talked about how Joe never let money — or the lack of it — stand in the way of treatment. They said his attitude has always been: I will accept whatever your insurance pays; don’t worry about it. One of them said he had no insurance at all, but Joe never hesitated in treating him.

His 24-year-old daughter, Elise Cardinale, a striking brunette and the band’s vocalist, said before the concert that she had approached her father some six years ago and asked him if he would start a jazz project with her since he had been studying the jazz guitar for some time.

She paused. “I have been singing since I was knee-high, and though I want to be a research psychologist, I will always sing as a hobby. It is in my blood. And the way this band was put together — the musicians that play with us are truly remarkable — is a testimony to my father’s need to give and give and give. We started going public with Sunday night concerts at the Ayuthai Restaurant in Guilford.

“Word got out, and we started packing them, and soon we’re being booked at other restaurants and the Branford Jazz Festival — and now this.”

“This is a dream come true,” her father said.

Three days earlier at the Center for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital in Derby where he was treating a patient, he said quietly, “Ever since I was a little boy, I wanted to be a doctor — to help people.”

When Joe is not gigging out, his medical practice keeps him busy. He is also the medical director of Radiation Oncology at Griffin, where he makes rounds once a week, and a faculty member at the Yale School of Medicine in the Department of Therapeutic Radiology in addition to his job at St. Raph’s.

“I picked oncology as my specialty because the need is so great and am exhilarated that cancer — a virtual death sentence three or four decades ago — is now much more treatable with a much better prognosis. We have come a long way.”

It could have been destiny that led him to swap his doctor’s lab coat for the spiffy black sport jacket he wears when he goes on stage.

During a lunch break at St. Raphael’s a number of years ago, he was bored and driving around New Haven when he came upon a music store, parked and went inside.

“The clerk asked me what I wanted, and I conjured up my dream guitar, specific in every detail. He said he might have just what I was looking for and brought out a guitar that met my specs in every way. I bought it on the spot.”

Joe said he had played the guitar as a teenager, “but I was all fingers and didn’t know what I was doing.” He gave it up because of the demands of college and medical school.

But this time, he attacked it with a vengeance. At first, his wife of 32 years, Filomena, objected. “I had two kids, a demanding medical practice, and now I was spending countless hours learning the jazz guitar.”

He laughed. “But now she is my biggest supporter, and this concert would have never happened without her.”

He talked glowingly, about his next door neighbor, Donn Trenner, a friend and legendary pianist who is a key member of his 2½-year-old band.

Trenner, a former conductor and musical arranger for a variety of vocalists and television show hosts, including Steve Allen and Bob Hope, was a pianist for such bands as the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra and later played with bands led by Buddy Morrow, Charlie Barnet and Jerry Gray.

“He has helped me immensely with my guitar studies, and it is astonishing that he and people like saxophonist Billy Cofrances and acoustic and electric bass player Dave Daddario, both of whom have played with some of the most well-known bands and artists in the country, have turned this band into something really special.”

His obvious excitement was translated to The Kate stage three days later. Wearing his trademark fedora — he didn’t take off during the entire show — he and the band came on stage with a flourish, and he paid tribute to the crowd for showing up at $25 a pop.

And then it began: One standard from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s after another, all played in the jazz tradition, which Joe admitted means hardly ever playing the same tune the same way twice.

Elise had the place rocking with “Fever,” made famous by Peggy Lee and her rendition of “Cry Me A River,” which she called her favorite song, was touching and full of feeling.

Each member of the band took turns riffing in numbers such as “Blue Skies,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Summertime” and “Nature Boy.” And, when it was finally over, the crowd wouldn’t let them go until they returned for an encore with “It Don’t Mean A Thing.”

In the middle of the concert, shortly before the intermission, Joe described the moment when his daughter asked him to launch a jazz project with her.

He thanked her and they embraced, a moment as touching as the music that poured over the footlights.

When the last ovation finally faded, Joe, Dr. Joseph Cardinale of Guilford, 57, whose main gig is his job as medical director of The Father Michael McGivney Center for Cancer Care in New Haven (as well as head of Radiation Oncology there) — turned to the audience and once more thanked them for coming.

No, they made it plain with one voice:

Thank you, Joe.