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.
“Whaddya need? I’m on a deadline.” Thus would begin my first phone conversations with Nat Hentoff, the jazz lover, journalist and self-described troublemaker who died in his New York City home on January 7, 2017. He was 91.
That was Hentoff’s standard gruff greeting, and all who heard it quickly learned there was no time for small talk. You asked your question, got your answer, and went on your way.
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.
When someone dies, we sometimes hear a tongue-in-cheek comment regarding the disposition of the departed’s worldly possessions: “You live, you die, your stuff goes out on the curb.” There are too many stories of lifetime LP collection ending up in a thrift shop donations bin, or of old scrapbooks being thrown away. When the time came for the family of pianist Ray Santisi to empty his apartment, they asked drummer Don McBride to help them ensure that none of Ray’s musical artifacts accidentally landed on the curb.
McBride and Santisi went way back—Don had known Ray for close to 60 years, from the time of the original Jazz Workshop on Stuart Street. Naturally he said yes, and some things of musical interest did turn up.
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.
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.
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.
Norm Nathan, born on this date in 1925, hosted Sounds in the Night, a jazz program on Boston’s WHDH-AM, from 1956 to 1968. Each weeknight, from 11:30 to 5:30, Nathan would spin records and interview guests.
Nathan started in radio in 1944, but it wasn’t until he arrived at WMEX in 1952 that he played a jazz record on the air. His own shows were mundane, but he could play better music when he filled in for Nat Hentoff as host of Jazz Album. Nathan was out of radio for a time after WMEX, and was hired at WHDH in 1956.
In the glory years of network radio, the F.W. Fitch Company sponsored a weekly program featuring swing music in cities from coast to coast, aptly called the “Fitch Bandwagon.” The program started in 1938, and by 1942, the half-hour show was in a prime-time slot on Sunday night, and broadcast by more than 120 stations nationwide over the NBC radio network. Its audience numbered in the millions.
During the summertime, as the Bandwagon rolled from city to city, it would sponsor contests to ask the locals to vote for their favorite band, and the winner would appear on the show. Fitch announced that on July 19, Bandwagon would be broadcast from Boston’s Statler Hotel. The F.W. Fitch Company made hair care products, so presumably the ballots (postcards, which then cost a penny to send) were available at barber shops, drug stores, and the like. (more…)
On May 5, 1958, jazz came to the small screen as The Jazz Scene launched on the commercial station WHDH-TV.
Hard as it is to believe, jazz was a regular feature on network television in the late fifties. In 1958, Garry Moore and Steve Allen each hosted the Timex All Star Jazz Show, Benny Goodman headlined a special called Swing into Spring, Billy Taylor hosted one series, The Subject Is Jazz, and Bobby Troup had another, Stars of Jazz.