A Brass Menagerie in Boston
There wasn’t anything else like the Brass Menagerie in Boston in the late 1960s. And even though there were jazz-flavored horn bands like Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago Transit Authority making waves at that time, there wasn’t anything like the Brass Menagerie anywhere else, either.
Dr. Gene DiStasio formed his little big band, which would first be named Brass ’68, in mid 1967. “The brass sound idea came to me several years back while working at Basin Street with Peggy Lee. The band then had three trombones and trumpets and rhythm section and the sound was too much!” DiStasio told writer Larry Ramsdell in January 1968. “I wanted something that was the sound of today but still had some jazz influences. You definitely would not call it a jazz band…(although) we do use jazz harmonics and some free-form things.”
The instrumentation was unusual for the time: five horns paired with what was essentially a rock band. The group was brimming with talent. DiStasio, Ed Byrne and Michael Gibson played trombone, Jeff Stout and George Zonce were on trumpet, and Ray Pizzi played saxophones and flute. The two guitarists were Mick Goodrick and John Abercrombie. Rick Laird played electric bass, Peter Donald drums, and Don Alias congas.
Two things helped Brass ’68 stand apart from its contemporaries. First, there were no keyboards, at least not initially. Second, there was no singer. DiStasio did add Alan Broadbent to play keyboards in 1969, and although the group worked with the pop/rock singers Billy Porto and Jimmy Helms, the band never hired a vocalist of its own. (Brass ’68 did back Porto on his 1968 LP By Myself, Alma ST-101.)
They didn’t work every night in 1968, but there were some notable gigs. There were three week-long engagements at Paul’s Mall, a few dates for the city-sponsored Jazz Wagon (folded into the Summerthing program the next year), and working with Smokey Robinson around New England. They opened for Cream at the Back Bay Theater in April.
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