Lovano was born in Cleveland, Ohio. In Cleveland, Lovano was exposed throughout his early life to jazz by his father. Joe started on alto at age six and switched to tenor five years later. He studied at Berklee College of Music under Herb Pomeroy and Gary Burton.
After three years with Woody Herman’s orchestra, Lovano moved to New York and began playing regularly with Mel Lewis’s Big Band. In the early 1980s Lovano began working in John Scofield’s quartet and a bass-less trio with Paul Motian and Bill Frisell. In 1993, at the suggestion of musicologist Gunther Schuller, fellow Clevelander and bebop guitarist Bill DeArango recorded the album Anything Went with Lovano.
Lovano’s Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard, garnered a Down Beat “Jazz Album of the Year” award. Other releases include Trio Fascination and 52nd Street Themes. In the late 1990s, he formed the Saxophone Summit with Dave Liebman and Michael Brecker (later replaced by Ravi Coltrane). In 2006 Lovano released Streams of Expression, a tribute to cool jazz and free jazz.
In 2008, Lovano formed the quintet Us Five with rising star Esperanza Spalding on bass, pianist James Weidman formerly associated with Abbey Lincoln and the M-Base collective, and the two drummers Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III. Lovano has been the teacher of Jeff Coffin after the latter received an NEA Jazz Studies Grant in 1991. He currently holds the Gary Burton Chair in Jazz Performance at Berklee College of Music.
Lovano appears in Noah Buschel’s film The Missing Person in 2008, starring Amy Ryan and Michael Shannon.