He was born in Mount Morris, New York, younger brother to saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, and trumpeter and arranger/composer John LaBarbera. He was formally educated at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.
After Berklee he spent two years with the US Army band at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He began his professional career playing with Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd, followed by the Chuck Mangione Quartet.
He then moved to New York and spent two years freelancing with a number of notable musicians, including Jim Hall, Phil Woods, Art Farmer, Gary Burton, Art Pepper, John Scofield, Bob Brookmeyer and Toots Thielmans.
In 1978, Joe joined the Bill Evans trio with bassist Marc Johnson. After Evans' death in 1980, Joe joined singer Tony Bennett. LaBarbera has played with jazz pianist Bill Cunliffe who described in an interview with All About Jazz reporter Fred Jung what it was like working with him:
Joe was able to give me a traditional rhythmic approach, which I sometimes really love and then other times, he is able to be very avant-garde rhythmically, not play rhythms, maybe play colors, lose the time, get it back, and be very innovative. In the sextet, that is really important because there are times in the band that we will actually play free for a little while. We won't have any tempo or any format. We're playing songs, but sometimes we stop playing the songs altogether and just play whatever we want. Joe has the maturity to do both of those things and know to splice them together. There are many great musicians that when they play free, they don't know how to get out of it and back to the music.––Bill Cunliffe
LaBarbera currently resides in Los Angeles, California, where he has been teaching at the California Institute of the Arts since 1993. LaBarbera is also on the faculty of the Bud Shank Jazz Workshop in Port Townsend, Washington, has also served on the National Endowment for the Arts council in Washington, D.C., and has been a guest at many other colleges as both performer and lecturer.
- Ramsay, Doug (2010-04-12). "The Melodic Joe LaBarbera". All About Jazz. Retrieved 2010-04-19.
- Jung, Fred (2004-04-08). "A Fireside Chat with Joe La Barbera". All About Jazz. Retrieved 2010-04-19.
- Fred Jung (2010). "A Fireside Chat With Bill Cunliffe". all-about-jazz. Retrieved 2010-06-07.
When I was a kid, I was listening mostly to classical music because my dad had a lot of it in the house. I listened to all the stuff that was on the radio in the Sixties and Seventies.