The Troy Street Observer

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.

Photo of Brass Menagerie , 1969Dr. 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.

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Newport 1958: Herb Pomeroy’s Big Band

1958 Newport Jazz Festival program cover
Program cover, 1958 Newport Jazz Festival

With the Newport Jazz Festival right around the corner, the people at JazzBoston asked me to contribute a festival-related guest post to their blog—and to give it some Boston flavor. I wrote about a Saturday afternoon in 1958 when the Herb Pomeroy big band took the place by storm with their combination of fresh, original charts (it always was a writers band) and finely honed ensemble work. But the band really outdid itself with a tune written especially for them by George Duvivier, “The Lunceford Touch.” Wrote The New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett, “Herb Pomeroy and his big band, in its final number, “The Lunceford Touch”…got off some brass figures that were so loud and so brilliantly executed that the air in the park seemed to be rolled right back to the bleachers.”

“The Lunceford Touch” was a great moment for the band, but, as Pomeroy later confessed, they almost didn’t play it. Read the whole story on the JazzBoston blog.

Ill be writing occasional guest posts for JazzBoston in the coming months, and my thanks to them for the opportunity to showcase our local jazz history on their site.

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The Second Boston Globe Jazz Festival

In the mid-1950s, the Boston Globe disdained jazz, and in 1955 even openly mocked George Wein’s efforts at Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival. Times change, and in 1966 the Globe hired Wein to produce the first Boston Globe Jazz Festival, at the Boston War Memorial Auditorium (later renamed the Hynes Convention Center).

1967 Boston Globe Jazz Fest program cover
1967 Boston Globe Jazz Festival program cover

It was a success, and Wein was back at it on Jan 20–21, 1967. He brought that old Boston hand, Father Norman O’Connor, along to emcee. Down Beat’s Alan Heineman was there, and though there were high points, his overall reaction was: “lackluster.”

That mood started on Friday night. The Modern Jazz Quartet was “disappointing” and the Dave Brubeck Quartet was “dull.” Even Monk’s Quartet was “pleasant and predictable—to the extent that Monk can ever be called predictable.” By then it was 11:30, and much of the audience departed before the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra played a single note. But their set was sizzling, with superior ensemble blowing and exceptional soloing: “Highlights? Hell, the entire set was a highlight.” But less than half of the capacity crowd remained to hear them.

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Mar 19, 1981: A Festive Tribute to Duke

The big hit of the Boston Globe Jazz Festival of 1981 was the home-grown “Tribute to the Duke,” produced by Herb Pomeroy and Tony Cennamo. Amidst all the national talent on display during the festival that year—Lionel Hampton, Chick Corea, Dizzy Gillespie, Zoot Sims, Phil Woods, and many others—none cast a longer shadow than the Bostonians on their home ground.

The evening’s emcee at the Berklee Performance Center was pianist Sabby Lewis, who played an Ellington medley with bassist John Neves and drummer Fred Buda. The rest of the evening’s music featured the Pomeroy Orchestra. Pomeroy revered Ellington, and played with the Ellington Orchestra. He was also known for teaching Ellington at Berklee. Duke once quipped that he ought to drop in on Herb’s class to find out what he was doing; he eventually did and there’s a picture of it here. On this night Pomeroy’s Orchestra played Ellington favorites such as “Kinda Dukish,” “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” and “Chelsea Bridge.” Soloists singled out in newspaper reviews the next day included Phil Wilson, Jimmy Mosher, and Jimmy Derba. Mae Arnette joined the band to sing “I Let a Song Go out of My Heart” and “I Got It Bad.”

There were longer pieces as well, one being a Pomeroy favorite, the “Tone Parallel To Harlem.” The evening’s most ambitious offering was “The Road of the Phoebe Snow,” an Ellington medley first assembled for the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, with dancers Leon Collins and Adrienne Hawkins joining the band this night.
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Feb 11, 1960: World Premiere! Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Aram Avakian and Bert Stern’s Newport Jazz Fest film, Jazz on a Summer’s Day, had its world premiere at the Beacon Hill Theater on Feb 11, 1960. Boston has had its share of debut performances on the stage, especially back when the Hub was an important Broadway tryout town, but a film premiere was a rare thing. Stern’s camera was everywhere: on the stage, behind the scenes, in the crowd. So this documentary, all shot on the Saturday of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, received much scrutiny in the local press.

All the Boston papers covered the opening in their February 12 editions, and most of the reporters liked it, even if they weren’t quite sure what they were seeing. Said the Traveler’s Alta Maloney: “This is a most unusual film, a treat for the eyes and ears.” The Globe’s Marjory Adams called it a “sure-fire pleasure,” with musical numbers that “offer emotional thrill and beauty to even a jazz ignoramous like myself.” The Record’s Elliot Norton didn’t like it, equating the fervent fan or player to an unrestrained barbarian, attempting “to blow or shake or shout his way back to a Neanderthal freedom, on a level close to that of the animals.” Finally on the 16th John McLellan, one of the emcees that day at Newport, wrote in his “Jazz Scene” column in the Traveler that “Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a film currently at the Beacon Hill, is a remarkably accurate picture of the Newport Jazz Festival.” Good enough for me, and besides the film has Louis and Mulligan and Monk and Mahalia Jackson and many more doing what they did best.

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