Fazola or Faz was born in New Orleans, Louisiana as Irving Henry Prestopnik. He got the nickname Fazola. He decided to use the nickname as his family name, and many fellow musicians were unaware that Fazola was not his birth name. Many people feel that he adopted the name "Fazola" from Louis Prima, when Faz toured with him. Prima would tell Faz that he was "Fazola" Italian for "Beans." That being Jazz talk for being cool.
Influenced early on by Leon Roppolo, who Fazola continued to idolize throughout his life, Fazola was playing professionally by age 15. In his home city of New Orleans he worked with such bandleaders as Candy Candido, Louis Prima, Sharkey Bonano, Armand Hug, and Ellis Stratakos.
When the touring Ben Pollack band came through New Orleans in 1935 Fazola joined the band and toured the country and played residencies in New York City and Chicago with them. After brief stints with Gus Arnheim, Glenn Miller and time back in New Orleans he joined the Bob Crosby band in 1938. His work with Crosby brought him national fame. He ranked first in the Down Beat polls of 1940 and 1941 as the top hot clarinetist, winning out over such other greats as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Edmond Hall.
It is clear, listening to Fazola's mature style in the late 1930s (My Inspiration with the Bob Crosby Orchestra, for instance), that his main influence by then was Jimmie Noone. He played on the Glenn Miller composition Doin' the Jive which was released on Brunswick and Vocalion in 1938 by the first Glenn Miller Orchestra.
After leaving Crosby's band two years later he alternated between playing with various groups in New York, Chicago, and New Orleans (including a stint with George Brunies at the Famous Door) before returning to New Orleans for good in 1943. While some of his fellow musicians urged Fazola that greater fame and fortune awaited him in the big cities up north, Fazola said he was more comfortable in his home town with its wonderful food (which he ate in great quantities, becoming ever more obese). According to Pete Fountain, for whom Fazola was one of his two foremost idols, Faz also drank heavily, which contributed to his weight and his early death.
Fazola died of a heart attack in New Orleans in 1949 at the age of 36.
Fazola was an enormous influence on young clarinetist Pete Fountain, whose style and sound very much followed Fazola's and who sat in for Faz at the Opera House the night Faz died, specifically requested because he played like Faz. Fountain's estate continues to hold Faz's clarinet, but Fountain said that the odor of garlic that comes from the horn when it warms up makes it virtually impossible to play even after having been reconditioned by the factory. It is an Albert System clarinet, on which the fingers are stretched out more than on the Boehm system clarinet that Fountain played. The distinctive woody (or "fat") Fountain sound, however, comes from the crystal mouthpiece he played with since 1949, his first having been Fazola's own, given to him along with the clarinet by Fazola's mother after Faz's death, because she had heard him play and noted how he played like her son. Pete played crystal mouthpieces ever after.