July 11: Remembering Jimmy Derba
Jimmy Derba is one of those musicians who is often overlooked. Not a big name, but a talented musician whose career was sadly cut short. He was best known as a baritone saxophonist, but he played all the saxes, clarinet, and flute. He was born in Everett, Mass. on June 26, 1935 and died on this day in 1981.
Like many other musicians, Jimmy Derba had a day job. His was as an engineer, with the Boston Redevelopment Authority and later with the Massachusetts Port Authority. But jazz was his passion.
Derba studied at Berklee and took private lessons with Tony Viola, and was a member of Herb Pomeroy’s backup band (the one Phil Wilson calls “the B-Band”) in 1954-55. In 1959 he replaced Jimmy Mosher on baritone in the Pomeroy Orchestra (Mosher moved to alto), and remained when Pomeroy downsized in 1960. He also played with Varty Haroutunian’s Octet, the Wednesday night band at the Stable. He sat next to Dick Johnson in both Herb’s and Varty’s bands.
Derba went with Woody Herman in 1960-61 and Louis Bellson in 1962, but that was the end of his road days. Back in Boston, Derba worked in numerous combinations, including a Jimmy Mosher Octet with Sadao Watanabe and Hal Galper, a quintet with trumpeter Dick Wright and drummer Ted Pease, and the Mosher-Fontaine big band in the late sixties and early seventies. He worked in a nightclub band in the early seventies, at places like the Surf in Revere, with Pomeroy, Lennie Johnson, and Tony Lada. He always found work.
When Herb Pomeroy reformed his big band in 1979, Derba was on it, primarily on baritone but also on soprano and flute. He can be heard on the Pramlatta’s Hips LP of 1980 (Shiah HP-1), with a fine solo turn on John LaPorta’s “Remember Mingus.” Also in 1980, Derba began working in Dick Johnson’s Swing Shift, where he played baritone, tenor, flute, and clarinet—alongside Johnson, who played alto, tenor, soprano, flute, and clarinet. The two of them played all the woodwinds, and their versatility added great color to Swing Shift’s arrangements. Derba’s on the 1981 Concord Jazz release, Swing Shift (CJ167). Why this recording has been unavailable for 30 years is beyond me; it’s worth hearing just for the brawny version of Clark Terry’s “Jones” that kicks off the LP, with solos by Derba on baritone and Johnson on alto.
Swing Shift played at the KOOL Jazz Festival in Purchase, NY over the July 4 weekend in 1981. A few days later Derba underwent heart surgery and died shortly afterwards. He was 46. A month later, an SRO crowd packed Sandy’s Jazz Revival on behalf of the Jimmy Derba Memorial Scholarship Fund. Appropriately, it was Woody Herman’s Orchestra providing the music, with Dick Johnson sitting in on the third set.
Unfortunately, neither Swing Shift nor Pramlatta’s Hips is available online. But one of the tunes that Woody played at Sandy’s was “Especially for You.” Here’s the Young Thundering Herd with that one, recorded live in 1982. Nice tune.