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.
DiStasio bankrolled the band himself, drawing on his income as an orthodontist to pay salaries and buy arrangements. Those charts, mainly of well-known pop and rock tunes along with a handful of originals, might be a third thing separating Brass ’68 from other bands. The major contributors were London-based Mike Gibbs, already a leading composer in the jazz-rock idiom; Michael Gibson, one of the band’s trombonists, who later emerged as a leading arranger and orchestrator on Broadway, and Alan Broadbent, whose jazz-rock charts for DiStasio began his long career as an accomplished arranger.
Signed to Capitol Records
The band’s manager was the indefatigable Fred Taylor of Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop. Taylor told me that “In 1968 I made a deal with Capitol Records to make an album, and we were recording what I think were the first jazz versions of Beatles tunes: “Day Tripper,” “Walrus,” “Rain,” “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Then there was “MacArthur Park.” Alan Broadbent wrote an arrangement of “MacArthur Park” for that band, and to this day, I’ve never heard anything that can touch it. They’d end their sets with it, to standing ovations. We had seven tracks done when Gene had a ruptured ulcer and went into the hospital for surgery. We stopped the sessions and then never got it back together. I never did find out what became of the master tapes.”
Late 1968 and early 1969 represented something of a high point for the band. They worked on the album for Capitol. They welcomed the new year with a two-week engagement at Paul’s Mall, going in as Brass ’68 and emerging with their new name, the Brass Menagerie. On January 22, they were on the Mixed Bag program on Boston’s Channel 2. Then on January 31, they played at the 4th Boston Globe Jazz Festival.
At the Boston Globe Jazz Festival
The Brass Menagerie’s highest profile performance was at the Globe festival. Critical opinion was mainly positive. Although the local press praised the hometown crew, most of the established music beat writers were still getting accustomed to serious rock music. They liked the band, but tended to dwell on the crossover “now sound of today” aspect of it.
Alan Heineman in Down Beat came with a rocker’s perspective and left with a rocker’s disappointment. “The group is attempting a fusion of jazz and rock. Unfortunately, the instrumentation (six horns plus guitars and rhythm) militates against any real faithfulness to rock. Furthermore, the pieces selected by the Menagerie are not hard rock… While drummer Peter Donald and guitarists Michael Goodrick and John Abercrombie play with bite and force, the charts are closer to fortissimo swing than rock. The Menagerie’s ensemble playing is expert, and when they build over several choruses, the band generates considerable power. However, the solo work is derivative, except for DiStasio himself and Abercrombie.”
Rod Nordell, of the Christian Science Monitor, seemed to best grasp what DiStasio had in mind with Brass Menagerie, and he poked a bit of fun at himself besides. Commenting on Michael Gibson’s “The Death of Bach,” he wrote: “With electric guitars and bass, as well as drums and brass, the group was able to move from the limpidity of the fugue to a cataclysm of several megatons. Smaller cataclysms ripped into the delicacy of a French-horn-colored version of a Beatles tune. A member of an older generation was struck by how effective such intimations of chaos were in the midst of the swinging, disciplined playing of disciplined arrangements by a group of young men in suits.”
Back on Mixed Bag
Things got quiet not long after that as DiStasio recovered from surgery. The album stalled and some of the musicians left for other gigs. But the band worked its way back, and in October it was again the guest group on Mixed Bag. And that at last brings us to the music, because one of the Santisi tapes is of that October 30, 1969 show.
The six-tune set included Gary McFarland’s “Amour Tormentoso,” Gibson’s “The Death of Bach,” Harry Nilsson’s “Without Her,” and the tune I’ve added to my YouTube channel, Traffic’s “Smilin’ Phases.” The personnel that night included DiStasio, Byrne and Hal Crook trombones; Stout and Joe Giorgianni, trumpets; Gary Anderson, reeds; Goodrick and Lance Gunderson, guitars; Abercrombie, bass; Broadbent, piano; Donald, drums; and Keith Copeland, congas. John Abercrombie, one of the regular guitarists, may have been filling in for the regular bassist on this night. It is noteworthy that most of the musicians and arrangers were either Berklee students or graduates.
DiStasio broke up the band in 1970. Later he led a group called the New Brass Menagerie for a short time in 1974, and he used the name again for a four-trombone group he organized for Sackbut Week in 1986. But the Brass Menagerie was a 1960s band, and despite the fact it never broke through, DiStasio remembered it years later as “one of the hottest bands ever.”
Numerous careers got started in the Brass Menagerie, and the list of the members’ first stops afterward is fascinating. Abercrombie went with the Breckers’ group, Dreams. Goodrick went with Gary Burton, Laird with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Stout and Zonce with Buddy Rich, Broadbent and Anderson with Woody Herman. Peter Donald toured with Carmen McRae, Don Alias with Miles Davis, Keith Copeland with Stevie Wonder. Byrne and Giorgianni went straight into the New York studios, and Pizzi went the same route in L.A. Without a doubt, DiStasio knew talent when he heard it.
With the discovery of Ray Santisi’s tape, we now have a little bit of the Brass Menagerie and can begin to restore them to their place in Boston’s music history. It would be a treat to find those missing Capitol master tapes!