We’re all spending a lot of time relaxing in our apartments in this sad corona spring. Too much time, you say? Well, 50 years ago, there was a nightclub called the My Apartment Lounge in Boston that you might have left only with reluctance. It was in the Hotel Vendome, on Commonwealth Avenue at Dartmouth Street, and like everything else on this blog, it comes with a history.
Start with the hotel itself. If ever a building belonged on Comm Ave in the Back Bay, it’s the elegant Vendome, among Boston’s finest examples of Renaissance Revival architecture. The Vendome defined luxury in late 19th century Boston. It was the first public building to install electric lights. There was steam heat in every room if the fireplaces weren’t enough to warm the guests. Two sitting U.S. presidents stayed there, as did luminaries in every field.
There is a darker chapter to the Vendome’s history, too. The hotel fell on hard times, suffered a few suspicious fires, and finally closed in 1970. New owners began a condo conversion the next year. And then tragedy: on June 17, 1972, nine Boston firefighters died fighting a horrific four-alarm fire.
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.