The Troy Street Observer

Ray Santisi: The Last of the Stablemates

Photo of Ray Santisi
Ray Santisi, Stablemate

Pianist Ray Santisi, who died October 28 at age 81, was a working musician for almost 65 years. He was also a composer and arranger, author, and perhaps most famously, teacher. He joined the Berklee faculty in 1957, and spent 57 years there.

He was also the last surviving Stablemate—the last of a trio of Boston musicians for whom Benny Golson composed the song “Stablemates” in 1955. The others were trumpeter Herb Pomeroy and tenor saxophonist Varty Haroutunian. The three set the pace at the Stable, one of the city’s great jazz rooms in years gone by.

I thought I’d remember Ray today by taking a look at the formative years of his career.

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The Jaki Byard Quartet Plays a Medley at Lennie’s

I wrote about the recordings made by the Jaki Byard Quartet at Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike in an earlier post, and I’ve finally added an extended track from Volume 2 of Live! to my YouTube channel. I chose “Jaki’s Ballad Medley,” but as you’ll hear, Jaki was joking when he mentioned ballads. For some reason, though, the people at Prestige Records kept “Ballad” in the title.

Byard starts with a bit of his “European Episode,” and then works through “Tea for Two,” “Lover,” his own composition “Strolling Along,” “Cherokee,” and finally Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings.” Drummer Alan Dawson and bassist George Tucker acquit themselves admirably throughout, but the star is Joe Farrell on tenor, with two fine solos.

The recording was made on the night of April 15, 1965—which, as Lennie reminded me, was the night Havlicek stole the ball. You non-Bostonians will just have to follow the link to look that up.

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May 30, 1971: Fire Closes Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike

lennie'sLogoFirefighters broke through the roof to fight the blaze, which was confined mainly to the bar and dressing rooms, but the entire building suffered extensive smoke and water damage.

Just about all of the great jazz clubs described in The Boston Jazz Chronicles or in posts on this blog were inside the Boston city limits—the Savoy, the Stable, Storyville, the Jazz Workshop. But one, a favorite of both performers and listeners, was way up in the suburbs. That was Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike, on the northbound side of Route 1 in West Peabody. On the morning of May 30, 1971, fire struck the club.

“You could say I am down, but not out,” proprietor Lennie Sogoloff told the Globe’s Bill Buchanan later that day. “This club has been my life since the early 50s and to see all the damage was a great shock to me. I just don’t know what direction we’ll take now. It’s something I’ll have to think about.”

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Sabby, Symphony Sid and WBMS

Photo of Symphony Sid
Charlie Parker called him “Symphonic Sidney”

May 12 was the start of busy week for Norman Furman, the general manager at Boston’s WHEE radio, 1090 on the AM dial. The owners wanted a new sound, and Furman went to work on that immediately upon his April arrival. On May 12, he had some results.

First, a new deejay was starting that day. Sabby Lewis, the man who personified Boston jazz in the 1940s, would host a one-hour show, six days a week, in the early evening. (Find more on Lewis here, here and here.) “He will be,” announced the Boston Chronicle, “the first colored band leader disc jockey ever in Boston.” Neither the Chronicle nor anyone else said Lewis was the first African-American deejay. He wasn’t. That was Eddy Petty at WVOM. But hiring Lewis demonstrated that Furman, who introduced all-black programming to WLIB in New York City, intended to bring more of that programming to WHEE.

During the week of May 12, the station changed its call letters to WBMS, for “World’s Best Music Station,” its original call when the station first went on the air in 1947. The Boston newspapers carried the announcement on May 19.

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Apr 20, 1959: Lady Day’s Last Visit

Photo of Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday, 1958

Billie Holiday opened her last engagement in Boston on April 20, 1959, at  Storyville. For Holiday, who had not worked in Boston for three-and-a-half years, it was a triumphant return.

I believe Holiday first came to the Hub in August 1937 with Basie’s band, singing at the Ritz Roof. She made history here in March 1938 when she joined the Artie Shaw Orchestra at the Roseland-State Ballroom. The 1940s are dotted with Holiday appearances, but Boston was really reintroduced to her in February 1951, during a ten-day engagement at the Latin Quarter.

Boston in 1951 had the Hi-Hat and Storyville competing for jazz talent. Holiday, who had lost her cabaret card, could not work in the New York clubs, so the Boston situation was to her advantage—between 1951 and 1955, she worked week-long engagements at Storyville five times and at the Hi-Hat four. The last was in October 1955, and although she sang at the North Shore Jazz Festival in Lynn in 1957, she wasn’t seen in Boston again until April 1959. On this visit, her accompanist, Mal Waldron, was joined by bassist Champ Jones and drummer Roy Haynes.

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Apr 15, 1981: Michael’s Jazz Club Closes

Photo of James Williams
A Michael’s regular: James Williams in 1979

The days approaching Tax Day have sometimes been troubled ones for Boston’s jazz clubs. Take the Willow, for instance. On March 27, 1997 the Willow Jazz Club in Somerville was padlocked. The owner was in serious legal trouble and the city closed him down.

On April 9, 1978, the fabled Boylston Street clubs, the Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall,  closed. Owner Fred Taylor said he could no longer afford to stay in business.

On April 14, 1960, John McLellan, in his Jazz Scene column in the Boston Traveler, quoted a letter written by Storyville owner George Wein. The club had shut down for five weeks that spring, its first in-season closure, and was to reopen April 11. Wrote Wein: “If Storyville is successful, or even moderately successful, in this six-week period, then we will go ahead with some plans for the fall. If business is as dismal as it has been all winter, then I don’t know what the future of Storyville will be.” There wasn’t enough business. Wein turned out the lights on May 22, and closed his club.

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The Trio With That “Zephyrous Cognomen”

Photo of the Soft Winds
The Soft Winds (l-r) Herb Ellis, John Frigo, and Lou Carter

Come the month of March, all New England is yearning for the warmer southern winds. One year, however, our balmy breeze was a musical one. Metronome magazine, in March 1950, referred to the Soft Winds as the group with the “zephyrous cognomen,” which probably prompted more than one reader to consult the dictionary. But “zephyrous” was an apt word, because the group’s quiet swing was mild and breezy, and from June 1949 to December 1951, that zephyr soothed Boston. Later, as a duo, the Soft Winds refreshed Boston again, in 1953 and 1955.

Guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist John Frigo, and pianist Lou Carter formed the postwar rhythm section in the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, but when Dorsey furloughed the band in 1947, they set out on their own as the John Carlis Trio. They modeled themselves after Nat Cole’s group. As the Soft Winds, they arrived in Boston in June 1949. By then Frigo had written his most famous song, “Detour Ahead.”

The Soft Winds were the perfect group for the Darbury Room, an upscale club downstairs at 271 Dartmouth Street, just off Newbury Street. They had that quiet, just-right swing: “We had that Shearing sound before Shearing did!” said Frigo.

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Mar 13, 1950: “The High Priest of Bebop” at the Hi-Hat

Thelonius Monk first worked in Boston with Coleman Hawkins at the Savoy, in March 1944. Six years later he returned to Boston, this time as the headliner, for a weeklong stay at the Hi-Hat, opening on March 13.

Monk by Swierzy
Thelonius Monk by Waldemar Swierzy, 1984

George Clarke, of the Daily Record, mentioned that Monk was in town in his March 18 column. He reported that “If you want to see what a real be-bopper looks like, take a run out to the Hi-Hat where, at the moment, one Thelonius Monk, who calls himself “the high priest of bebop,” is holding forth, be-bop hat, horn-rimmed glasses, tiny goatee, and all…. Thelonius—and he swears that’s his real name—claims to antedate Dizzy Gillespie and all other exponents of musical double-talk, saying he was bopping, or maybe beeping, way back in 1932.”

Yes, Clarke was insulting, but it doesn’t do much good to complain about a columnist’s ignorance 65 years after the fact. He was, most likely, operating in the “bebop-as-gimmick” fog common in mainstream media at the time; perhaps he even considered as legitimate the greeting exchanged by Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Carter in pages of Life magazine in October 1948. And Clarke was a newspaperman of an earlier time, who loved the Harlemania bands of Ellington and Calloway and never had much use for modern jazz.

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February 27: Blues for Tinker’s

Nightclub owner John Tinker wanted to bring live music to Tremont Street in the South End, and he did that, twice. The first time was in the 1960s at Estelle’s, and the second was in the early 1980s at Tinker’s. Both were at 888 Tremont, a building that still stands today, if just barely.

Photo of Estelle's
Estelle’s/Tinker’s, 888 Tremont Street

The music was first-rate, both times, and a parade of the top names in local and national jazz and R&B crossed the stage. But it’s a story that ended tragically. John Tinker’s music ended with his murder on February 27, 1982.

The building at 888 Tremont had housed a dance hall, a speakeasy, and the restaurant called Estelle’s before Tinker and his business partner Frank Williams bought the place in 1964—building, liquor license, and all. It didn’t take them long to add live music.

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Feb 22, 1960: Held Over! Herman Chittison at the Mayfair Lounge

Herman Chittison, a stride-school pianist who played a gorgeous melody, spent close to two years in Boston in 1959-61. Maybe that wasn’t long enough to qualify him as a “Boston jazz musician,” but he certainly made his presence felt in the time he was here.

Photo of Herman Chittison
Herman Chittison in 1950

Chittison arrived in Boston in October 1959, as resident pianist at the Red Garter in the Lenox Hotel, in the room where the City Bar is now. He remained there through January, joined at least part of the time by singer Greta Rae. Then he moved to the Mayfair Lounge, in Bay Village. The melodic Chittison played solo piano in the lounge while name bands played in the main room. After three weeks, the club announced it was holding over Chittison indefinitely.

Chittison’s career started in 1928, with Zack Whyte’s territory band in Ohio, and in the early 1930s in New York, his soft touch found him work as an accompanist to Adelaide Hall and Ethel Waters. He visited Boston for the first time with a traveling show headlined by comic actor Stepin Fetchit. In late 1933 he went to Europe with the Willie Lewis Orchestra, and the following year recorded with Louis Armstrong in Paris. Chittison and trumpeter Bill Coleman left Lewis in 1938, and formed a band that worked extensively in Cairo, and traveled as far east as India.

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