...and the Music they brought to Memphis 


Angelo Joseph Jack

There aren't many around who might know about the Cortese brothers other than recognizing their name on an old Memphis theatre program.  But they were great musicians as well as prominent Memphis instrumental music teachers.  And they were responsible for bringing the greatest artists from the world of Classical Music to Memphis, along with major actors, dancers, and Broadway productions.  This is their story...


Click on small photos to see an enlargement

The  story begins in Marsicovetere, Italy with their father, Antonio Cortese.  Marsicovetere is a town in the province of Potenza, in the Southern Italian region of Basilicata.  The town center is historically important, although most of today's population of 5,253 resides in the new part of town.  Antonio Cortese was born here and had studied music in Paris, where he became a gifted violinist, although not a prosperous one.  With the help of friends he immigrated to Canada around 1886 along with his wife, Maria Francesca and their first child, 6 month old Angelo. 


Marsicovetere, Italy

Marsicovetere Italy Antonio Cortese    


The Cortese family relocated to London, Ontario, Canada. which was first settled by Europeans in 1826 and was incorporated as a city in 1855.  It grew into the largest Southwestern Ontario municipality  and when the Cortese's arrived it was a thriving community, where  Antonio was able to establish his own successful orchestra  "the London Italian Harpers."  Soon the oldest son Angelo was joined by the births of brothers John (Jack) and Joseph, sisters Nettie and Jessie.   The three brothers were musical and began studying at an early age.   Angelo studied the Harp, Jack, the Flute, and Joseph, the Violin.  All three were gifted. 

London, Ontario 1890  


Angelo first studied music with his father's cousin, Frank Cortese, harpist with the Philadelphia Philharmonic, and then with Enrico Tramonti, harpist with the Chicago Symphony, eventually, with the great Alphonse Hasselmans at the famous Paris Conservatory of Music.   Joseph studied violin with Ludwig Becker, concert master of the Thomas Orchestra of Chicago, and then with Ovide Musin, famous Belgian violinist.  Jack studied with Quinzel, first flutist with the Thomas Orchestra of Chicago, and then with M. Hennaibains of the Paris Conservatory.  All brothers became members of Concert Orchestras as well as prominent soloists in Canada and the United States.

Angelo 1896


Angelo Joseph Jack A. Hasselmans Hasselmans Angelo with Hasselmans 1911

Paris Conservatory

Frank Cortese

Frank's Orchestra

Ovide Musin

Cortese Men

Angelo's Debut

"Old Ma (Maria Francesca Cortese, she was always referred to as one of these two names, never just Maria) would say "You've got to play those instruments, or you'll never be nothing in life."  (A. James Cortese, Angelo's son)





The MEMPHIS Years ... Angelo was invited to Memphis in 1911  by Mrs. Houstis Sims, arts patroness and wife of brain surgeon Houstis Sims, to play with the new Memphis Symphony Orchestra   ... and from that introduction, Memphis became his home.  Memphis, at this time was beginning to burst with a growing population, and the city was starved for good music.  Angelo knew he could help satisfy this demand.


Memphis 1910

Memphis 1912

Memphis 1912

Memphis 1920

Music News 1917

Joseph Angelo Jack Joseph - Teacher Pupils 1916 Cortese Brothers Concert Co.

Joseph came to Memphis in 1913.   Besides being a violin virtuoso, he was a great choir master and became president of the Choir Masters Guild of Memphis.  It helped that he could play any instrument.  Although Jack had visited Memphis and been with his brothers in numerous local concerts, he didn't make the final move to the city until 1926, because he served a stint in the Royal Canadian Mounties.  While his Memphis brothers had begun to manage concert tours in the South, Jack was doing the same thing in Canada.

Cortese Trio 1925


In 1918, the faculty of St. Agnes College established the
Memphis Conservatory of Music where students could acquire a B.A. degree in music. It became the formal music education center of Memphis for beginning, advanced and professional students.  Angelo and Joseph taught here.   After the Conservatory was incorporated in 1923 it eventually formed  the Department of Music at St. Agnes College.


Mphs Conservatory

St. Agnes College

Joseph Concert

Angelo Who's Who Int. Music Memphis Music M. M. Part 2 Concert Conservatory 1925

For many years East End Park was a favorite destination for Memphians.   The dance pavilion at the park was called the Chrysanthemum Ballroom.  Prominent charitable organizations sponsored dances here and one could see the same crowd as at the Country Club or the Hunt and Polo Club, mingling with "ordinary" citizens.  Big name bands were a major attraction and the pavilion vied with the Chisca Hotel ballroom as a tango palace.  The Cortese Brothers booked the leading bands, like Jan Garber and Blue Steele's into The Chrysanthemum Ballroom


East End  Ballroom

Concert Wedding Wedding Home Concert Angelo Recital Concerts Praise... Contert

From the time of their first arrival in Memphis, the Corteses played constantly, as a trio or individually.  They also toured the small towns and cities of the south  for many years.  In 1923, the brothers performed a program of chamber music to open 
WMC, Memphis' first radio station.    For several years afterwards, they regrouped to celebrate the station's anniversary.  They also performed on the opening broadcast of WREC.  Their Downtown office was at 103 S. Main - a still existing building.

WMC Stamp


"Good Music" Cortese Tapes Cortese Presents Recital 1919 Angelo

103 S. Main


Angelo 1924


1920 Promotional

1920 ...Continued

1920s-30s Promotional

1920s-30s Continued



1925 Ad

Cortese Trio

"The three brothers would practice at Angelo's home.  The reason was that it took too much work to move and haul that 'huge ukulele (harp) around all the time."  (A. James Cortese, Angelo's son)


From May to November, the Concert Business  tended to be slow and the Corteses needed more to occupy their time.  In 1927 Jack and Joe invested in the dry cleaning business and they were successful at this totally unrelated business.  Their Krosstown Kleaners building at 1400 Madison still stands today.  Jack remained active at the cleaning shop up until 1972.  In addition to this business, the three Corteses were ardent fishermen, and they fished two or three times a week.  Joe was also a big Bridge player. 

1400 Madison


Krosstown Cleaners Crosstown Cl. Article Letter Petition Back of 1400 Madison

The three brothers really liked each other and  throughout their lives remained very close.  Not only were they almost always together, their families were also almost always together.  They lived near each other and took vacations together, and their individual families grew up together.  Their lives seemed to revolve totally around each other.  If they weren't working together, they were fishing or playing together.  Angelo's wife was Lorienne, and they had 2 sons and 3 daughters.  Joe's wife was Dorothy, and they had 5 sons.  Jack's wife was Emily and they had  no children.

  Lake Huron, Ontario, Canada ...

Lorienne on porch Lorienne Angelo Lorienne-Angelo

1918 - Memphis Evening Out          

For years, the Cortese Brothers played the music for the midnight Christmas Mass at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.  "The brothers amongst themselves felt that even though they were all really outstand musicians, that Joe was the best of three."   (A. James Cortese, Angelo's son)




Angelo had come to Memphis to play harp with the first Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and he continued with them as long as the orchestra functioned.  He and his harp were continuously in demand for concerts, weddings ... and funerals.   "Angelo got tired of doing so many weddings; so he raised his price from $250 to $500.  He still had just as many weddings." (A. James Cortese, Angelo's son).  In the 1940s, a muscle ailment in his right arm ended Angelo's concert career.

Angelo- 1960s


Ironically, in a city noted for demolishing its past, the long-time homes of the Cortese brothers still exist - 1870 Union Av, 1287 Harbert Av. and 1280 Worthington Pl.

1920 Directory

1930 Directory 1932 Directory 1870 Union 1287 Harbert 1280 Worthington Pl

Angelo died in 1966.  Joe died in 1969.  Jack died in 1977
.    After Angelo's death, Jack sold his instruments, and the remaining two brothers never played again.


Angela's Obit

Mary's Obit






When the Cortese Brothers arrived in Memphis in 1911 and 1913, there was a shortage of good music as well as theaters appropriate for major concert artists.   The Greenlaw Opera House had burned in 1880.  The Old Memphis Theatre had burned in 1891.  And the Auditorium-Bijou burned in 1911.      The Odd Fellows Hall  (1000 seats) was only occasionally available  for touring companies.  The Goodwin Institute (900 seats) was better suited for lectures. The Lyceum (2010 seats) and Orpheum (2000 seats were now showing films with Vaudeville and not available.  The 19th Century Club was suitable for small concerts only.  The desperately needed Ellis Auditorium was not built until 1924.  That left the Lyric Theatre with 1500 seats.


Lyric Theatre


Lyric Theatre Lyric Theatre OddFellows Hall Goodwyn Inst Goodwyn Stage

.First 19th C. Club

2nd 19th C. Club   Skating Rink Skating Rink today

And finally, in 1924 Memphis got its Auditorium ... with 12,000 seats

It didn't happen overnight.  There were endless discussions, numerous changes, additions, and  cost over-rides, etc.  The Auditorium-Market Place was finally dedicated in 1924 with a concert featuring John Phillip Sousa's Band.  Memphis finally had a proper auditorium for fine music.  11,000 attended the afternoon concert and 14,000 the evening concert.  Negotiations for Sousa's contract were handled by the Corteses and the contract was turned over to the city because the concerts were Free.  For the next 75 years, every major touring company and international celebrity in the world was proudly presented at Ellis Auditorium. 


Ellis Auditorium 1926

Editorial 1919 1919 1920 1919 Dedication Whiteman 1925 Ellis North Hall

And then The Shell ...


Overton Park Shell

Vintage MOAT Performance

Billboard 1943


St. Louis had an open air theatre, so why shouldn't Memphis?  In 1936 the Overton Park Shell opened and the first concert featured  a solo by violinist  Joseph Cortese.  The Shell became the Memphis Open Air Theatre (MOAT) and Memphians loved their light operas under the stars all summer long.   From 1939 to 1951 Jack Cortese was the flutist in the orchestra and Joe Cortese was the concert master and first violinist.  In 1940, Joe became the general manager for the next 11 years. 

Perhaps the most famous event in the history of the Shell occurred when it became the location for Elvis Presley's first PAID performance.  Thus, it is on the "Elvis Tour".   The Shell still exists and is now known as  the Leavitt Shell.  Live  performances are still held there - with picnics on the grass.

Some of the artists the Cortese Brothers brought to Memphis and the reviews and ads...

The Cortese's initial venture in 1914 was to bring the famous
Nellie Melba and Kubelik, the violinist, to Memphis.  There was no theatre available so they leased a skating rink which served as a combination theatre-rink.  3,000 tickets were sold and still others were turned away.  The concert was a huge success but the old skating rink was a huge failure.  However, it started the campaign for a new downtown auditorium.




In 1919 the Cortese Brothers introduced an "All Star Concert Series".  Their outstanding soloist this season was the beautiful Mary Garden the star of the Chicago Lyric Opera Company.  


Mary Garden

1919 Review

1920 Ad

The 1919 "All Star Concert Series" also included Madame Schumann-Heink, the world famous contralto.   The Cortese Brothers arranged her tour from Mississippi to Missouri.   One of these bookings was unsuccessful and lost money.  The gracious Schumann-Heink reimbursed the Cortese's for their loses - a rare deed for any artist.

  Madame Schumann-Heink

Amelita Galli-Curci was first booked by the Cortese Brothers in 1920.  She was billed as the "world's great singer" and this booking proved it when 3,000 attended her concert and over 1000 had to be turned away.  The reviews gave the Cortese Brothers much credit for this success.  This booking began a long association with Galli-Curci.  The brothers, who didn't like temperamental artists said, "Galli-Curci was so ugly she couldn't be temperamental".

Galli-Curci 1919 Ad 1920 1920  

Also in the 1920-21 season was Rosa Ponselle a popular singer who had come up through Vaudeville.  This was her debut in Memphis and the public loved her, but the Memphis music critic did not.   When she visited again in another season, the critic loved her.

Ponselle Ponselle 1920 1920  

Also in the 1920-21 season was soprano
Luisa Tetrazzini an coloratura soprano of great international fame.  Her voice was considered remarkable for its flexibility and thrilling tone.  She was in ill health during her final years in the 1920s and this caused a lot of cancellations.






Creatore Grand Opera Company   .    San Carlo Grand Opera Company

The Cortese Brothers had such faith in Memphis that they booked the Creatore Grand Opera Co  and the San Carlo Opera Co for several days at a time - a bold move.  There were grand productions of Aida, Barber of Seville, Carmen, and Otello. 


1919 Ad

1920 Ad

G. Creatore

G. Creatore Band

1919 Review 1920 Review 1920 Review San Carlo Co.

Paul Whiteman

Tito Schipa

Paul Althouse

Will Rogers




Paul Whiteman Orchestra   Tito Schipa   Althouse 1921     Rogers 1925-28  

In 1922, the Cortese Brothers brought great dance companies to Memphis for the first time ... Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, and Martha Graham - all pioneers in their field.

  Isador Duncan St. Denis - Shawn Martha Graham

The Cortese also began booking legitimate theatre and musical comedy.  To give the Memphis Censors something to think about, the George White Scandals, Ziegfield Follies, and Earl Carroll Vanities were booked ... with an extra scarf or two added here and there. 

The audience loved the shows and they were complete sell-outs.

George White Scandals Ziegfield Follies Earl Carroll Vanities

... and


Efrem Zimbalist

Mabel Garrison

John McCormack

Sophie Breslau

New York Philharmonic


Lambert Murphy

Louise Horner William Trolier Jascha Heifetz Paderewski Paderewski


From 1923-1933, the Corteses also managed major attractions all over the south.  Because of their knowledge of the business and their many contacts, they were able to attract the finest musicians and talent in all fields of entertainment.  Angelo had seen the potential in Memphis, and with Joseph and Jack, they made it happen.


        Angelo 1957





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