Joe Lovano was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1952, and began playing alto sax as a child. A prophetic early family photo is of the infant Joe cradled in his mother's arms along with a sax. His father, tenor saxophonist Tony "Big T" Lovano, schooled Joe not only in the basics but in dynamics and interpretation, and regularly exposed him to jazz artists traveling through such as Sonny Stitt, James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Ammons, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. While still a teenager he immersed himself in the jam-session culture of Cleveland where organ trios were common and Texas tenor throw-downs a rite of passage. In high school he began to absorb the free jazz experiments of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Jimmy Giuffre, and was greatly affected by the interaction which occurred between the musicians.
Upon graduation from high school he attended the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston where he met and began playing with such future collaborators as John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and Kenny Werner. He had been searching for a way to incorporate the fire and spirituality of late-period John Coltrane into more traditional settings. At Berklee he discovered modal harmony: "My training was all be-bop, and suddenly there were these open forms with deceptive resolutions. That turned me on, the combination of that sound and what I came in there with. I knew what I wanted to work on after that." In 1994 Joe was given the prestigious "Distinguished Alumni Award" from Berklee and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1998.