“Whaddya need? I’m on a deadline.” Thus would begin my first phone conversations with Nat Hentoff, the jazz lover, journalist and self-described troublemaker who died in his New York City home on January 7, 2017. He was 91.
That was Hentoff’s standard gruff greeting, and all who heard it quickly learned there was no time for small talk. You asked your question, got your answer, and went on your way.
This changed when I asked him about Counterpoint, a newsletter that he wrote and produced in 1947. He asked how I learned about it, and I told him that the Dorothy Prescott Papers in the Library of Traditional Jazz at the University of New Hampshire had an almost-complete set. That got him started—Dorothy had been a good friend and fellow member of the Jazz Society, a group of enthusiasts who staged concerts in 1944-46. The long-forgotten Counterpoint carried me past the deadline greeting.
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.
Let’s take a break from the insults and name calling of the 2016 presidential campaign to recall a lighter moment from the Dewey-vs-Truman campaign of 1948. It involves Thomas E. Dewey’s motorcade through the streets of Boston, Nat Pierce’s band, and Harry S. Truman’s campaign theme song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
This all starts with David X. Young, the abstract expressionist painter and proprietor of the legendary Jazz Loft in New York City. He lived in Boston in the late 1940s, and was a devoted fan of Nat Pierce’s jazz orchestra.
Young wrote the liner notes for a 1975 album that collected the work of that band. (Nat Pierce Orchestra 1948–50, Zim Records ZM-1005, out of print) He mentions a 1948 incident where unnamed musicians serenaded Dewey with Truman’s campaign song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” as Dewey passed by on Boylston Street. He noted that Dewey listened “glumly” as confetti rained down. When, I wondered, did this happen?
With so many fine trombonists having been a part of the Boston scene—I came up with a list of 27 with reputations extending well beyond the city limits just for the 25-year span of The Boston Jazz Chronicles—it is no surprise I overlooked a few who should have been mentioned earlier. Gene DiStasio is one I missed, and with his prominence on the Santisi tapes, I can finally rectify that oversight.
Gene DiStasio was born and raised in Revere, Mass, one of eight children, all budding musicians competing for practice time on the family piano. At 15, the trombone became his primary instrument, and in 1946 he started lessons with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s John Coffey, a legendary teacher of brass players. After a few years, though, a lung ailment forced him to set aside the trombone, and he turned toward a different career path, entering Tufts University to study biochemistry. He graduated in 1953 and went on to study dentistry at NYU.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of the trombone. By about 1952, he had regained his ability to play, and became a regular in the local clubs. Even after he moved to New York, gigs still lured him back to Boston; one notable one was playing on Serge Chaloff’s 1954 recording, The Fable of Mabel. Trumpeter Herb Pomeroy was also on that session, and when he organized his big band at the Stable the following year, he offered DiStasio a chair in the trombone section. Gene accepted—and he enjoyed it so much, he came home, transferring to the Dental School at Tufts. He graduated in 1957.
When someone dies, we sometimes hear a tongue-in-cheek comment regarding the disposition of the departed’s worldly possessions: “You live, you die, your stuff goes out on the curb.” There are too many stories of lifetime LP collection ending up in a thrift shop donations bin, or of old scrapbooks being thrown away. When the time came for the family of pianist Ray Santisi to empty his apartment, they asked drummer Don McBride to help them ensure that none of Ray’s musical artifacts accidentally landed on the curb.
McBride and Santisi went way back—Don had known Ray for close to 60 years, from the time of the original Jazz Workshop on Stuart Street. Naturally he said yes, and some things of musical interest did turn up.
They found, for instance, a big box of reel-to-reel tapes, dozens of them, mostly from the 1960s, in the back of a closet. I’m sure Ray had planned to do something with them someday—many of us have rainy day projects that we never seem to get to. McBride looked at the tapes, recognized them for the treasures they were, and with the family’s blessing, took them away.
With the Newport Jazz Festival right around the corner, the people at JazzBoston asked me to contribute a festival-related guest post to their blog—and to give it some Boston flavor. I wrote about a Saturday afternoon in 1958 when the Herb Pomeroy big band took the place by storm with their combination of fresh, original charts (it always was a writers’ band) and finely honed ensemble work. But the band really outdid itself with a tune written especially for them by George Duvivier, “The Lunceford Touch.” Wrote The New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett, “Herb Pomeroy and his big band, in its final number, “The Lunceford Touch”…got off some brass figures that were so loud and so brilliantly executed that the air in the park seemed to be rolled right back to the bleachers.”
“The Lunceford Touch” was a great moment for the band, but, as Pomeroy later confessed, they almost didn’t play it. Read the whole story on the JazzBoston blog.
I’ll be writing occasional guest posts for JazzBoston in the coming months, and my thanks to them for the opportunity to showcase our local jazz history on their site.
Trumpeter, composer and educator Don Stratton, a true Yankee original, died at his home in Augusta, Maine, on April 24, 2016. I got to know Don ten years ago when I interviewed him for The Boston Jazz Chronicles, and we stayed in touch afterwards. He was a source of countless insights and anecdotes, and I always enjoyed our conversations.
Don Stratton, mid 1950s
Don was active professionally on the Boston scene from 1945 to 1951, and he was enormously helpful in providing information on those years. For much of that time he lived close to the center of the jazz scene, at Mass Ave and Columbus, and he knew every important musician, black and white, in Boston in those years. This post, based on our conversations in 2005-06, recount that time in Don’s life.
So it’s Super Tuesday and the electoral circus has come to Massachusetts, and this year it’s brought along even more clowns than usual. We can’t keep the clowns out of the circus, but sometimes genuine humorists—Will Rogers, Gracie Allen, Pat Paulsen—make the trip too. Today, though, I’d like to remember one who brought us mirth, but with it a serious platform. That was John Birks Gillespie, and the year was 1964.
Gillespie was asked why he was running for President. His answer: “Because we need one.”
Dizzy’s campaign began when the Associated Booking Agency started passing out “Dizzy Gillespie for President” buttons. When one was visible on a prominent lapel during the 1963 March on Washington, a few people, including Gillespie, saw an opportunity to spread a message. Before long, there was a John Birks Society in California working to get him on the 1964 ballot. He had a campaign manager, Jeannie Gleason, and a campaign publicist, her husband, the journalist Ralph Gleason.
There are comebacks, and then there are comebacks. Thirty-four years ago, in June 1981, Miles Davis staged a memorable comeback performance in Boston that ended five years of self-imposed silence. The four-night barrage stood the jazz world on its ear, and although the music was formidable, what made it all so head-turning was that it was such an event.
Miles had been out of the public eye for five years, enduring physical maladies and having little desire to play. But he was ready to go again in 1981, and his group had just recorded a new album, The Man With the Horn, and he was going to play at the Kool Jazz Festival in New York in early July. But Davis wanted a tune-up first, and he wanted to do it in a club. So Davis contacted Fred Taylor, for whom he had worked more than ten times at the Jazz Workshop or Paul’s Mall between 1967 and 1977. Simply put, Davis trusted Taylor.
It’s been four months since I last posted on this blog, and sometimes I get email from readers wondering what’s going on. I didn’t intend to stop writing, but a new project came along and it is taking most of my time—I’m working with Fred Taylor of Scullers Jazz Club on his autobiography. It’s an “as told to” book, and I’m honored to be the one he’s telling it to.
It’s quite a story—the Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall, the Great Woods Jazz and Blues Festival, the Harvard Square Theater, the Tanglewood Jazz Festival, Scullers, and hundreds of concerts, benefits, and shows… And of course it’s a story of people, Bostonians as well as national figures in jazz, pop and comedy. There are stories, or parts of stories, in general circulation, for instance regarding Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. But everybody’s in here. Take the name “George.” So far we’ve talked about Wein, Benson, Shearing, Carlin, Winston, Garzone, Coleman, Frazier, and Duke. I suspect we’ll be getting to Russell, Colligan, Schuller and Duvivier.
So here’s the pitch. If you’ve known Fred for a while, or if you’ve worked with him in one of his many ventures, please leave a comment here, or send me a message. Fred’s story isn’t just the story told by Fred, it’s also the stories about Fred that I hear from other people.