The Troy Street Observer

Dr Gene DiStasio, the Boss Bone

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.

Photo of Gene DiStasio, mid 1960s
Gene DiStasio, mid 1960s

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.

So there he was, dentist by day, musician by night, and he kept it up for years. The Stable was Jazz Central for the local musicians, and it featured a band every night—Pomeroy’s big band on Tuesdays and Thursdays, various small groups under Varty Haroutunian’s direction four nights a week, and DiStasio’s quintet on Mondays. (I’ll have more on that group, with Hal Galper and Sam Rivers, in a later post.) DiStasio had the chops to move up in the jazz world—Buddy Rich and Woody Herman tried to pry him out of Boston—but he chose to stay put. When Pomeroy broke up his band in 1962, DiStasio was still with it. Then he worked with Kai Winding’s septet, and with the Jazz Workshop’s resident group, the Herb Pomeroy Sextet, from 1963 to 1966.

Brass Menagerie and Beyond

In 1968 he organized Brass ’68, a jazz-rock powerhouse featuring three trombones, two trumpets and two electric guitars, which became a prominent group on the local scene. (The name changed to the Brass Menagerie in 1969, and I’ll have more on them in a future post as well.) DiStasio was also part of Phil Wilson’s Trombone Ensemble in the late sixties and early seventies.

Photo of Gene DiStasio and Greg Hopkins
Gene DiStasio and Greg Hopkins, mid 1980s. Photo by Nick Puopolo.

In 1978, Pomeroy formed a new big band, and DiStasio was in that one, too. When it wound down in the early 1980s, he played with just about every big band in the area—Hopkins/Naus, Kenny Hadley, Duke Belaire—and he was the first person the contractors would call when they needed a trombonist for a show band. Through all this, he was still going to the office every morning to fix teeth.

DiStasio formed his last Boston group, the Boss Bones, in the late 1980s with a four-trombone front line—Gene alongside Tony Lada, Rick Stepton and Jerry Ash.

DiStasio closed his clinic and moved to Sarasota in 1994, and freed from his day job, he immediately fell in with other transplanted northerners and commenced making music. Some of his frequent Florida bandmates included drummer Don Lamond and saxophonist Kenny Soderblom. That’s where Gene was residing at the time of his death, in May 1996.

To the music. Here’s Gene DiStasio in June 1965, leading a quartet with pianist Ray Santisi, drummer Alan Dawson and bassist Gary Peacock. Here they play the standard, “Walkin’,” and DiStasio’s long opening solo calls to mind J.J. Johnson and Frank Rosolino, both of whom Gene admired. It isn’t often we hear Gene, a section man from way back, out front in a quartet setting like this.

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  1. If you heard the Pomeroy band in The Stables, you could imagine yourself (the room was so small down there) a member of the band. Jazz was all around us in those days. Dick Wetmore (cornet) and Ernie West (drums) played at that bar (was it “Junior’s” ?) just off Mass Avenue behind the Lobster Claw. Wish I could remember the piano player’s name. I think draft beer was a quarter, the same price as it was at The Dugout, across from BU.

    But for me the most wonderful memory of the Pomeroy band was the night they backed Jimmie Rushing at the Boston Arts Festival. Pomeroy pushed the tempo on Rushing and Jimmie seemed to love it. What a night! My mother was the housekeeper for Guy DiStasio, Gene’s father, an MD with a practice in Revere. The 50s had their days — and their nights!

    • Were Wetmore and West playing at Danny’s on Haviland St? Changing cast of piano players but Harry Ferullo might have been the most regular one. Great post, Leo — thanks for stopping by!

      • Yes, I had the right sound (Junior’s) but the wrong name. Danny’s or Dannie’s sounds right. The son of the owner of the Lobster Claw ran Danny’s, tended bar. I just went to the Google satellite and indeed it is Haviland Street.

        I knew that area well and at one time, just before
        I moved to New York, I lived above the Waldorf cafeteria, The Big Red Apple, in an apartment I took over from a former girlfriend. When she lived there I used the alley behind the building, the alley that runs parallel to Boylston Street and Haviland Street, and climbed up the fire escape — scared the hell out of her. But I was useful: reglazed the windows, which were falling apart.

        One night at Danny’s John McClellan came in. It was shortly after Ernie West’s trio had been on McClellan’s radio (or tv?) show and Ernie,from his perch on the cramped bandstand behind the bar, made every effort to let the son know who he was serving. Not sure if McClellan got a round on the house, but he should have!

        One night three or four members of the Pomeroy band came in and Ernie West convinced the drummer to sit in. But the real joy of this group was Dick Wetmore on cornet and (Oh my Oh my !!) violin. He worked a day job at the post office. We spent too much time at The Red Lion, a bar a door or two down from Brighams, at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Boylston.

        • My apologies for the very late response to your comment. I’ll have to do a post on Dick Wetmore. He used to play with Bill Wellington at Danny’s and I’m told they lit up the place every night. I’ve also been told that the New England Conservatory students used to have jam sessions at the Lobster Claw. Did you ever hear anything about that? Thanks for stopping by. –RV

  2. Gene was a talented musician and a very fine gentleman in many respects and will be remembered well by many musicians. I met him during the ‘Stable Era’ he was always friendly and very helpful and encouraging to the younger musicians like myself at that time.. Gene shared my love and admiration for JJ Johnson and when we met the conversation usually got around to JJ and JJ’s concept. Gene also made his dental skills available to musicians and often worked for gratis. Men of his calibre are few and far between and I am certain he is sorely missed by his many bandmates and audiences as well..

    • High praise spoken by one trombonist about another! I have been told by others who knew Gene about his admiration for JJ Johnson, and you can hear it in his playing. I don’t think very many nights went by when he didn’t play “Lament,” it was a real favorite of his. I hope things are well with you, and thanks for stopping by!

  3. I saw Gene many times at the Stable on Herb’s band, but the most memorable time was at the Jazz Workshop with Charlie Mariano, when a young up-and-coming comedian named Flip Wilson appeared. The only story I recall him telling was about a woman with a wooden leg, and the less said, the better!

    • At the beginning of his career, Flip was very tuned in to the jazz world—Fred Taylor mentioned he first heard him perform at Birdland in NYC, opening for Cannonball, and Fred liked him so much he went backstage and signed him to play at the Workshop. There will be more on that in the book I’m working on with Fred. I wonder if Wilson told any dentist jokes… Thanks for stopping by.

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