The Troy Street Observer

Nat Hentoff: Remembering a Boston Boy

“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.

Nat-Hentoff-WMEX-1946
Nat Hentoff at WMEX, 1946. Photo by Red Wolf.

This changed when I asked him about Counterpoint, a newsletter that he wrote and produced in 1947. He asked how I learned about it, and I told him that the Dorothy Prescott Papers in the Library of Traditional Jazz at the University of New Hampshire had an almost-complete set. That got him started—Dorothy had been a good friend and fellow member of the Jazz Society, a group of enthusiasts who staged concerts in 1944-46. The long-forgotten Counterpoint carried me past the deadline greeting.

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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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Ray Santisi’s Box of Tapes

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.

Photo of Ray Santisi, 1959
Ray Santisi, 1959

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.

They found, for instance, a big box of reel-to-reel tapes, dozens of them, mostly from the 1960s, in the back of a closet. I’m sure Ray had planned to do something with them someday—many of us have rainy day projects that we never seem to get to. McBride looked at the tapes, recognized them for the treasures they were, and with the family’s blessing, took them away.

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May 12, 1952: Sabby, Symphony Sid and WBMS

Photo of Symphony Sid
At the mic at WBMS. 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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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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Dec 20: Norm Nathan’s Sounds in the Night

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.

Photo of Norm Nathan
Norm Nathan, 1960

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.

Nathan was supposed to play easy-listening pop music through the overnight hours, but he began slipping jazz records into the mix, and night owls started listening. He added more jazz and found more listeners, especially among the college crowd. Eventually he had the show he wanted, or close to it. In 1958, Basie supplied a suitable theme song, “Midnite Blue.”

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May 5, 1958: Jazz Scene Debuts on Local TV

On May 5, 1958, jazz came to the small screen as The Jazz Scene launched on the commercial station WHDH-TV.

Photo of John McLellan
John McLellan at the WHDH microphone

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.

All of these programs were hoping to duplicate the success enjoyed by The Sound of Jazz, broadcast by CBS in December 1957. Shot in black-and-white, with no elaborate sets, whirling dancers, or celebrity hosts, the show simply presented the musicians, in casual dress and settings, blowing. The artistic directors, Nat Hentoff and Whitney Balliet, kept the focus on the musicians and their music. It was jazz at its spontaneous best, and none of the shows that followed could match it.

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May 3, 1981: Debut of Eric in the Evening on WGBH

On May 3, 1981, Boston heard Eric Jackson host “Eric in the Evening” for the first time on WGBH radio.

Photo of Eric Jackson
Eric Jackson. Photo by Craig Harris.

Radio plays such an important part in The Boston Jazz Chronicles, and I’m hoping to tell a dozen stories about the voices we heard before the year is up. We’ve already met Tony Cennamo, John McLellan, and just a few days ago, Ken Malden. Today we meet Eric Jackson, a bridge figure in these chronicles, a part of “Boston jazz past” as well as “Boston jazz present.”

Jackson came to Boston in the late sixties to attend Boston University, and that’s where he started in radio in 1969, at student-run WTBU. Radio appealed to Jackson, and it was in his blood—his father Sam had been a jazz deejay in Rhode Island years before. After WTBU came short stints at WBUR, WHRB, and WILD. Then came five years at WBCN playing all kinds of music, and finally in 1977 Jackson landed at WGBH. In 1981, he filled in for the vacationing evening deejay, who chose not to return, and the slot became Jackson’s. He’s been there ever since, through good times and bad. Jackson has conducted some 3,000 interviews, and has brought us music we enjoy listening to for 43 years, and that is an amazing achievement.
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