Back in the day—no, even before that—there was a rowdy saloon on the corner of Stuart and Tremont streets, in Boston’s Theatre District, called the Knickerbocker Cafe. This was in the early 1950s, and the Knickerbocker was a favorite of the hordes of sailors from the Navy Yard who flooded the Theatre District nightly. They liked it because the club had a great house band, Fat Man Robinson’s quintet (later expanded to sextet), and one of its stars was the tenor saxophonist Andy McGhee.
McGhee, who died October 12, 2017 at age 89, came to Boston in 1945 to attend the New England Conservatory. He studied with Sam Marcus, a saxophonist and dance band leader, and later the president of AFM Local 9. McGhee graduated from the NEC Diploma Program in 1949. The comment accompanying his photo in his senior class yearbook read, “Will be on the road and with a first-rate band before you know it!”
In later years, McGhee downplayed his activity outside of school, but he was among the galaxy of future jazz stars around town in the late 1940s, a cluster that included Jaki Byard, Charlie Mariano, Sam Rivers, and Joe Gordon. McGhee logged time in the big bands of fellow student Bernard Moore, Roxbury pianist Hopeton Johnson, and finally the fabled Boston Beboppers of Jimmie Martin.
The adventurous guitarist and composer John Abercrombie couldn’t get enough of the organ trio. He had a lifelong love affair with them, starting in Boston in 1967, and he had trio dates scheduled at the time of his death on August 22, 2017. This post surveys those Boston beginnings and his ongoing enthusiasm for the jazz organ.
Boston was where Abercrombie soaked up influences and interests that stayed with him for decades. He spent eight formative years there, from 1962 to 1970, and his attraction to organ trios took hold then. He took his first steps on the national stage in one in 1967.
Although he was a student at Berklee, Abercrombie was quite active on the local scene. He used the city as one big woodshed. He played big band music with Phil Wilson’s Dues Band, sambas with the Bossa Nova Quartet of saxophonist Allan Rowe, and lounge jazz with Al Natalie’s Tijuana Sounds group. His roommate, Jan Hammer, played keyboards in a strip club, and Abercrombie sat in with him there. He graduated from Berklee in 1967, but he acquired his practical education playing across the musical landscape of 1960s Boston.
In early spring 1958, Joe Gordon abruptly left Boston for California. His last known date with Herb Pomeroy was March 18. The story has it that he stopped by the Stable to tell Pomeroy he was leaving town, and he left that same night. Allegedly Joe owed a drug dealer money, was told “pay up or else,” and fled. It might be true, it might not, but the story conforms to the generally accepted Gordon narrative.
Gordon was strung out when he arrived in Los Angeles, but he found work with the help of drummer Shelly Manne, who became one of Gordon’s strongest supporters on the West Coast. Joe gigged with Dexter Gordon and Hampton Hawes among others. He also married Irma, whom he’d known in Boston, after arriving in L.A., and he later named one of his better-known tunes for her, “Terra Firma Irma.”
Joe Gordon replaced Clifford Brown in Art Blakey’s pre-Messengers group in early 1954. That band, with alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce, pianist Walter Bishop, Jr. and bassist Bernie Griggs, recorded the album Blakey for EmArcy in May. Gordon stayed with Blakey for about six months.
In September, with Blakey, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, pianist Junior Mance, and bassist Jimmy Schenck, Joe recorded for the first time as a leader, also for EmArcy. The album, a 10-inch LP, was titled Introducing Joe Gordon.
The album’s reviews were mixed. Down Beat’s Nat Hentoff praised it (April 6, 1955), writing: “Gordon, though still a little unsteady…unleashes a power and a comet-like imagination that heralds one of the exciting newer voices of the year…All in all, a bracing sample of somewhat raw but always moving jazz.”
Trumpeter Joe Gordon was only 35 when he died in 1963, and he was in and out of the limelight during his too-brief career. Relatively little is known about him, and it seems like the same few biographical sentences copied from The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz appear on website after website. With the anniversary of his birth approaching, I thought it was time to dig deeper into Gordon’s history.
Part 1 of this three-part post covers Joe’s early years, mainly spent in Boston, and stops in 1953, the year Joe met Clifford Brown. Part 2 covers his hard bop and big band years, from 1954 with Art Blakey to his flight to West Coast in 1958. Part 3 covers his final years in California, ending with the tragic fire that killed him in 1963.
Gordon’s was an original and confident voice, and writers such as Nat Hentoff, John Tynan and John S. Wilson noted with approval his big sound, clean, articulate attack, and creative solos brimming with ideas. In terms of influences, Joe himself said: “I always seem to have liked Miles’ melodic thing with Dizzy’s drive, but actually it would be hard to say which one of the trumpet players I did follow. I always seemed to have a scope wide enough to employ everyone’s style.”
Pianist Hal Galper was a busy guy in Boston in 1962. Much of that activity centered around the Stable, the cellar club on Huntington Avenue, where Galper practiced his craft almost every night. Tuesdays and Thursdays, he played with Herb Pomeroy’s big band, while on weekends he worked with Varty Haroutunian’s small groups. On Mondays, he was a regular in trombonist Gene DiStasio’s Quintet, and their music is the subject of today’s post.
In April 1962, everyone knew the Stable had a date with the wrecking ball. The Commonwealth was razing the building to make way for a turnpike on-ramp. The musicians played on, though, and one Monday night, an unknown person captured DiStasio’s Quintet on tape. That recording ended up with Ray Santisi, and is now the fourth installment in my Santisi tapes project. It was Hal Galper, by the way, who replaced Santisi in the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra in 1959.
After transferring the music from the original 1/4-inch tape to a digital format, I sent a copy to Galper, knowing full well that musicians often take a dim view of being asked to listen to the way they played “back then.” But he was game, and in January 2017 we talked by phone about the music and his time in 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.
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.
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.
Let’s take a break from the insults and name calling of the 2016 presidential campaign to recall a lighter moment from the Dewey-vs-Truman campaign of 1948. It involves Thomas E. Dewey’s motorcade through the streets of Boston, Nat Pierce’s band, and Harry S. Truman’s campaign theme song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
This all starts with David X. Young, the abstract expressionist painter and proprietor of the legendary Jazz Loft in New York City. He lived in Boston in the late 1940s, and was a devoted fan of Nat Pierce’s jazz orchestra.
Young wrote the liner notes for a 1975 album that collected the work of that band. (Nat Pierce Orchestra 1948–50, Zim Records ZM-1005, out of print) He mentions a 1948 incident where unnamed musicians serenaded Dewey with Truman’s campaign song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” as Dewey passed by on Boylston Street. He noted that Dewey listened “glumly” as confetti rained down. When, I wondered, did this happen?
With so many fine trombonists having been a part of the Boston scene—I came up with a list of 27 with reputations extending well beyond the city limits just for the 25-year span of The Boston Jazz Chronicles—it is no surprise I overlooked a few who should have been mentioned earlier. Gene DiStasio is one I missed, and with his prominence on the Santisi tapes, I can finally rectify that oversight.
Gene DiStasio was born and raised in Revere, Mass, one of eight children, all budding musicians competing for practice time on the family piano. At 15, the trombone became his primary instrument, and in 1946 he started lessons with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s John Coffey, a legendary teacher of brass players. After a few years, though, a lung ailment forced him to set aside the trombone, and he turned toward a different career path, entering Tufts University to study biochemistry. He graduated in 1953 and went on to study dentistry at NYU.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of the trombone. By about 1952, he had regained his ability to play, and became a regular in the local clubs. Even after he moved to New York, gigs still lured him back to Boston; one notable one was playing on Serge Chaloff’s 1954 recording, The Fable of Mabel. Trumpeter Herb Pomeroy was also on that session, and when he organized his big band at the Stable the following year, he offered DiStasio a chair in the trombone section. Gene accepted—and he enjoyed it so much, he came home, transferring to the Dental School at Tufts. He graduated in 1957.