Apr 1, 1989: Jimmy Zitano Goes Marching in
Jimmy Zitano, the force behind the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra in the 1950s, died in Dallas on April 1, 1989.
There were many good drummers in Boston in the mid-1950s—Alan Dawson, Buzzy Drootin, Baggy Grant, and Jake Hanna to name a few..but even among such illustrious company, Jimmy Zitano, nicknamed “J.Z.,” stood out.
The Boston-born Zitano first came to public attention as drummer in Al Vega’s trio in 1952. They were the house band at the Hi-Hat, and always played a number or two on theclub’s radio broadcasts. Zitano first recorded with Vega’s trio, for Prestige in January 1953.
Zitano left Vega to join Serge Chaloff and Dick Twardzik in suburban Lynn, at the Melody Lounge, and in September 1954 took part in Chaloff’s Fable of Mabel sessions (Metronome said he was a Max Roach wannabe). He moved back to Boston to join the Jazz Workshop group and was on the March 1955 LP, Jazz in a Stable. But he also got the calls to work with Miles Davis and J.J. Johnson at the Hi-Hat, was on Chaloff’s Boston Blow-Up! LP in April 1955.
Then came Zitano’s chief occupation in the 1950s, driving the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra from its formation in late 1955. His drum sound was distinctive because he used timbales instead of tom-toms, and he pushed the band relentlessly. Pomeroy never underestimated Zitano’s importance, either on the bandstand or as a creative spark. Zitano’s departed in 1961 and the band would never be the same—or be as good.
Zitano left Boston when he left the Pomeroy band, moving to Miami, and there, unlikely as it might seem, he joined the band of trumpeter Al Hirt. Zitano’s Boston friends assumed he took the gig for financial reasons. He stayed with Hirt for four years, moving to New Orleans, and after Hirt broke up the band, to Dallas, in 1969. He worked in Jerry Gray’s hotel dance band until 1976, and then he freelanced. That brought him to a place called Dick’s Last Resort in the early morning hours of April Fool’s Day, 1989. Zitano was drumming with clarinetist Peyton Park’s Swing Mo Band, and he had just finished a solo on “Saints.” Then, as Park told a Dallas reporter, the drums went silent, and he turned to see Zitano slumped over. He’d suffered a heart attack. Jimmy Zitano, the best drummer in Boston in the fifties, was dead at 61.
You don’t find Zitano solos available online, but you do find music where he keeps the band moving forward right smartly. Here is a live version of “Where’s Charlie” recorded by the Pomeroy band in 1959. This band could swing like nobody’s business, and for that we can thank J.Z.