Almost 50 years ago, on Halloween night in 1971, the Mark Harvey Group played at the Old West Church in Boston. The concert, in keeping with the day and the place, was called A Rite for All Souls. Band member Peter Bloom dubbed performances like Rite “aural theatre,” and they were an adventurous addition to the local arts scene.
This surprising—and timely—music is now available through Americas Musicworks (AM CD 1596; for reviews, go here and here). It’s good to have this document of the MHG’s early work available. Stalwarts of the local jazz scene, Harvey and Bloom are heard here at the beginning of their 50-year musical collaboration.
A gathering storm of time, place and people led to the creation of A Rite for All Souls. Start with the time, or more appropriately, the times. In October 1971, there was work to do in the city of Boston. Local grassroots activists organized around issues involving equal rights and the corrosive effects of urban renewal. They forced an unwilling city to confront the impact of racial inequality in employment, housing and public education. Rent control was a hot-button issue, and citizen action had finally shut down the land-grabbing Inner Belt and Southwest Expressway projects. But there was much more to do.
Although trumpeter and bandleader Al Natale never called himself a jazz musician, I would be remiss if I did not remember him in this jazzy blog. Al was a generous man who liked to help people, and he helped me when I was writing The Boston Jazz Chronicles. But Natale, who died on April 28, 2020 at age 96, did play a noteworthy role at one of Boston’s famous bygone clubs, Paul’s Mall. He led that club’s first house band. Al Natale was the original Penthouse Tenant in 1964.
It took him a while to work his way to the penthouse. Natale started with music as a kid, playing bugle, then trumpet, in the band at St Anthony’s School in the North End. His dad was a weekend musician, and he helped Al with reading and ear training. In the mid 1930s, Al advanced to dance bands, then a theater pit band, while in high school. His teacher was Ralph Fuccillo, the lead trumpet in the RKO Boston Theatre orchestra. Al told me, “Ralph got me on the band. I was a good reader, and that’s what you needed to be to work all the different shows. Larry Flint was the conductor, and he’d recommend me as a substitute when visiting bands needed a trumpet player. I worked with Bobby Sherwood, Freddie Slack, Charlie Spivak…That’s how I came to join Bob Chester’s band.”
On the Road with Bob Chester
Chester was in Philadelphia when he called Natale with a job offer. Natale hung up the phone and raced to Philadelphia, joining the band at the Earle Theatre. Thus began his life as a big band road warrior. “I’m all of 17 or 18, a kid from the North End never much farther from home than Scollay Square, and here I am, working at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City opposite Harry James. Fabulous.” Chester’s was a talented band, and Al worked alongside drummer Irv Kluger, saxophonist John LaPorta, and the extraordinary trombonist Bill Harris.
Ron Gill was a guy who thought you could never do too much for jazz. Gill, who died on April 16, 2020, at age 85, sang countless songs in a career that stretched back to the mid 1950s. He also spent 20 years as a deejay, entertaining the Hub in the wee small hours of the morning. And he was a leader in the local jazz community, active with Boston’s Jazz Coalition and later with the New England Jazz Alliance. Gill had energy to spare for the scene he loved.
Brooklyn-born Ron Gill grew up listening to great singers, beginning with Billy Eckstine. He began performing as a high school student in Boston, and sometimes sang with friends who later formed the doo-wop group, the Love Notes. (They recorded a Gill composition, “Surrender Your Heart,” in 1953.) His next singing stop was the Caribbean, with Gene Walcott, “the Charmer,” in 1954-55. He was one of Walcott’s Calypso Rhythm Boys—the group’s balladeer.
Drafted in the mid-fifties, the army assigned Gill to the Special Services, their entertainment branch. Uncle Sam sent him to Germany to entertain the troops stationed there. Gill was still singing calypso (“a little Belafonte thing”), but he was surrounded by jazzmen. He remembered meeting saxophonists Eddie Harris and Leo Wright, and drummer Lex Humphries. Gill added more jazz to his repertoire.
We’re all spending a lot of time relaxing in our apartments in this sad corona spring. Too much time, you say? Well, 50 years ago, there was a nightclub called the My Apartment Lounge in Boston that you might have left only with reluctance. It was in the Hotel Vendome, on Commonwealth Avenue at Dartmouth Street, and like everything else on this blog, it comes with a history.
Start with the hotel itself. If ever a building belonged on Comm Ave in the Back Bay, it’s the elegant Vendome, among Boston’s finest examples of Renaissance Revival architecture. The Vendome defined luxury in late 19th century Boston. It was the first public building to install electric lights. There was steam heat in every room if the fireplaces weren’t enough to warm the guests. Two sitting U.S. presidents stayed there, as did luminaries in every field.
There is a darker chapter to the Vendome’s history, too. The hotel fell on hard times, suffered a few suspicious fires, and finally closed in 1970. New owners began a condo conversion the next year. And then tragedy: on June 17, 1972, nine Boston firefighters died fighting a horrific four-alarm fire.
Part 1 of this post covered Tak Takvorian’s years in the wartime navy bands of Artie Shaw and Sam Donahue. Part 2 continues the story from the time of his 1946 discharge. Read Part 1 here.
On a Modern Kick with Thornhill and Evans
“I came back home to Boston, but I didn’t stay long. Sam Donahue organized a new band in March and I went out again. It was a tough time to start a new band, though. Then I had a chance to go with Claude Thornhill in June of 1946.” Tak replaced Tasso Harris, his section mate from the navy band.
“That was a good band, too, with Red Rodney, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, and Barry Galbraith. Ted Goddard, also from around Boston (Medford), was playing alto when I joined. Gil Evans was writing and arranging. We did quite a bit of recording, things like “Robbin’s Nest,” “Snowfall,” and “La Paloma.” A few of Gil’s arrangements where I had solos were “Donna Lee” and “Anthropology.”
Vahey “Tak” Takvorian was a trombonist by trade, a big-band trombonist by preference, and a member of some of the very best bands during their mid-century heyday. Takvorian toured the South Pacific with Artie Shaw’s navy band, played the glorious Gil Evans charts with Claude Thornhill, and played lead for Tommy Dorsey for five years. In the late 1970s, he had another go in Boston with the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra. He was a first-class sideman who made the most of his opportunities.
Tak Takvorian (1922-2009 ) was the first name-band musician I spoke with when I started researching The Boston Jazz Chronicles, in 2004. I wrote an article about him for the newsletter of the defunct New England Jazz Alliance. This updated article, with Tak’s own words from our 2004 interview and photos supplied by his daughter Denise, does a better job of giving this fine player his due.
Twin brothers Vasken and Vahey Takvorian were born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1922. Their family moved to nearby Watertown a few years later. Both played music from an early age. Tak started on cello and switched to trombone at age 12. Vasken played bass. “Before I graduated from high school in 1940, I was already playing four nights a week with Larry Cooper’s band at the Mansion Inn in Cochituate (Massachusetts). Cooper played clarinet, and modeled his band after Artie Shaw’s. Being in school and playing nights…I didn’t have much time to do homework.” Tak also worked in violinist Lew Bonick’s dance band.
In January 1949, when Boston’s modern jazz pot was beginning to boil, the most popular jazzman in the clubs represented a different camp entirely. It was a Sidney Bechet disciple named Bob Wilber. Saxophonist and clarinetist Wilber, who died August 4, 2019 at age 91, was a frequent visitor to the Hub between late 1947 and late 1951. Those were critical years for Wilber, learning years, and he treated Boston’s Savoy Cafe as his personal woodshed. In 1949, Wilber was a near-constant presence at the Savoy, at a time when state law said he wasn’t even old enough to buy a beer there.
Bob Wilber studied intensively with Sidney Bechet in 1946-47, living in his home and recording with him. Then Sidney sent his pupil to Steve Connolly’s Savoy Cafe, where Bechet himself played a triumphant engagement in 1945. Wilber’s trio opened in November 1947. His high-school pal Dick Wellstood was on piano and the venerable Kaiser Marshall, himself a former Bostonian, played drums.
Wilber toured France in summer 1948 with Mezz Mezzrow, a trip that included an appearance at the Nice International Jazz Festival. In October he was back at the Savoy, with his best-known 1940s band: Henry Goodwin, trumpet; Jimmy Archey, trombone; Dick Wellstood, piano; Pops Foster, bass; and Tommy Benford, drums. This band packed the Savoy nightly. Connolly tore up their contract and announced they were staying indefinitely.
John Neves thought he was going to be a baseball player. He had the tools—agility, focus, strong arm, good hands. A gifted athlete at East Boston High School in the late 1940s, he starred as an all-city second baseman. After that, he played semipro ball around New England, then spent a season as a professional in 1951. He played in North Dakota, with the Fargo-Moorhead Twins, a minor league outpost in the Cleveland Indians system. His jersey number there, as it had been in East Boston, was a backwards 7. The man had a sense of humor!
John’s older brother, pianist and arranger Paul Neves, introduced John to the bass. John studied privately and played with Paul—but he played more baseball than bass in East Boston. Then came Fargo. And then came army service in the Korean War, where a back injury ended his dream of a baseball career. But he didn’t abandon the Old Ball Game completely—he was known as a fierce competitor when he played on Al Vega’s softball team in the 1950s. By that time, though, he was already a professional musician.
The Stable/Jazz Workshop Years
When Neves returned to East Boston in 1954, he focused on playing the bass at the Stable, the haven for modern jazz. It was a long streetcar and subway ride down to the Back Bay, but he did it to sit in with the trio there. Saxophonist Varty Haroutunian and pianist Ray Santisi knew a good thing when they heard it. They hired Neves, and the house trio became a quartet. It became a quintet when trumpeter Herb Pomeroy arrived.
Guitarist Don Alessi, once an ubiquitous presence on Boston’s music scene, was 100 years old when he died on Nov 3, 2018. His prolific career began in the 1940s and blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s. He was everywhere then—in clubs, on records, on radio and television. There was a time when it seemed like you could not pass a day living in Boston without hearing Alessi’s guitar somewhere.
Alessi was a jazz man at heart, but he played all styles of music in every imaginable setting. Fred Taylor told me that “Don was the utility infielder of Boston guitarists—whenever anybody came to Boston and needed a guitarist, they called Don Alessi. Any kind of music, he could play it.” On top of his daily radio and TV appearances, trio engagements, and studio work, he backed the likes of Sammy Davis Jr, Tony Bennett, and Jerry Vale. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Don Alessi owed his first big break to another Bostonian, the bandleader Vaughn Monroe. Monroe organized his first big band in 1940, and based it in Boston during the war years. During that time Alessi was working in the jazz spots around town. The photo of him here was taken at a jam session at the Hop Scotch Room, in the Copley Square Hotel, in 1944. Perhaps someone from Monroe’s band heard him there. Perhaps Vaughn himself did. Someone brought Alessi to Monroe’s attention, and when Bucky Pizzarelli, Monroe’s guitarist, entered the army in late 1944, Don Alessi replaced him. Monroe recorded some of his classic early sides during Alessi’s tenure, including “There, I’ve Said It Again” and “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” Pizzarelli resumed his career with Monroe after his discharge, and Alessi returned to Boston.
Paul Broadnax chuckled when I asked him to sign my copy of his LP, Introducing the Paul-Champ Three. “Now I know there are at least two people who have this record,” he said. “You, and me!” Broadnax, who died at age 92 on August 1, 2018, made that record in 1966. When I showed him my copy in 2014, he said it had been quite some time since he’d last seen one.
The Three were Paul Broadnax, piano and vocals; Champlin “Champ” Jones, bass and vocals; and Tony Sarni, drums. Broadnax and Jones shared arranging duties. The two first met in 1950, when Broadnax was writing arrangements for the Sabby Lewis Orchestra, and Jones joined as bassist. They started out as a duo in about 1960, and added Sarni on drums shortly after—there was more work for a trio. And they found plenty of it.