The Troy Street Observer

The Joe Gordon Story, Part 2: Hard Bop

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.

Photo of Introducing Joe Gordon album cover
Introducing Joe Gordon, EmArcy MG26046, 1954

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.”

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Dr Gene DiStasio, the Boss Bone

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.

Photo of Gene DiStasio, mid 1960s
Gene DiStasio, mid 1960s

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.

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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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Ray Santisi: The Last of the Stablemates

Photo of Ray Santisi
Ray Santisi, Stablemate

Pianist Ray Santisi, who died October 28 at age 81, was a working musician for almost 65 years. He was also a composer and arranger, author, and perhaps most famously, teacher. He joined the Berklee faculty in 1957, and spent 57 years there.

He was also the last surviving Stablemate—the last of a trio of Boston musicians for whom Benny Golson composed the song “Stablemates” in 1955. The others were trumpeter Herb Pomeroy and tenor saxophonist Varty Haroutunian. The three set the pace at the Stable, one of the city’s great jazz rooms in years gone by.

I thought I’d remember Ray today by taking a look at the formative years of his career.

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Apr 4-5, 1955: Serge Chaloff’s Boston Blow-Up

Cover of Boston Blow-Up!
Boston Blow-Up!, Capitol T-6510, 1955

It was welcome news indeed for lovers of the big sound of the baritone sax: Serge Chaloff was back. “Serge, for years one of music’s more chaotic personalities, has made an about face of late and is again flying right. It is evident in his playing, which…has become a thing of real beauty.” So began Jack Tracy’s Down Beat review (Oct 5, 1955) of Boston Blow-Up!, the recording made by the Serge Chaloff Sextet on April 4-5, 1955.

“Chaotic”…others used harsher words to describe Chaloff. Serge had been a junkie since the mid-forties, and although he played splendid saxophone with Georgie Auld, Woody’s Second Herd, and his own groups in early-fifties Boston, by 1954 he had no room left to run. He voluntarily entered the rehab program at Bridgewater (Mass.) State Hospital to put an end to his years of addiction.

Chaloff emerged from Bridgewater in early 1955, and one of the first to help Chaloff reestablish himself was the disk jockey Bob “The Robin” Martin, who negotiated a recording contract with Capitol Records as part of the “Stan Kenton Presents” series. Later in the year Martin arranged Chaloff’s guest appearance on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show.

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Mar 5, 1974: A Memorial Concert for Lennie Johnson

“Nobody in the capacity house at John Hancock Hall could see him, of course, but you can wager your paycheck that Lennie Johnson was sitting in last night for that all-star gig they threw in his memory.”

Photo of Lennie Johnson and Herb Pomeroy-1970
Lennie Johnson and Herb Pomeroy, 1970. Photo Berklee College of Music

So began Ernie Santosuosso’s review in the Boston Globe on March 6, 1974, the morning after the concert.

Johnson had been an instructor at Berklee for about five years at the time of his death in October 1973, and Berklee sponsored the concert, the biggest of the 1973-74 school year, and colleagues galore turned out to participate. Berklee had no large hall of its own (the Berklee Performance Center did not open until 1976), so whenever the school needed an auditorium, it rented the 1,100-seat John Hancock Hall.

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January 1958: Life Is a Many Splendored Gig for the Pomeroy Band

In late January 1958, after what seemed to Bostonians like an interminable wait, Roulette Records released Life Is a Many Splendored Gig, the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra’s first album (Roulette R-52001), and January 30 was the date the local press first wrote about it.

Photo of Herb Pomeroy
Herb Pomeroy, 1956. Photo Berklee College of Music

John McLellan, in his twice-weekly Jazz Scene column in the Boston Traveler (oh, to have the luxury of a twice-weekly jazz column in a daily paper), summed it up in six words: “the whole album is a gas.”

In The Boston Jazz Chronicles, I wrote about this band being the high-water mark of Boston jazz in the 1950s, and this recording is the proof of it. The band swings and the soloists (especially Joe Gordon) are standouts, but I give extra credit to the arrangers—Pomeroy’s band had the reputation of a writers’ band, and they’re in evidence here. Band members Everett Longstreth and Boots Mussulli contributed two arrangements each, as did Pomeroy himself, and Jaki Byard and Ray Santisi each wrote one. Byard’s “Aluminum Baby” became the band’s most requested tune. Bob Freedman, who replaced Byard in the saxophone section in September 1957, also contributed a chart.

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Jan 27, 1953: Mariano’s Boston All Stars Record for Prestige

If you liked modern jazz, and you were in Boston in the early 1950s, Charlie Mariano was your man. You don’t have to take my word for it. When I interviewed Ray Santisi for The Boston Jazz Chronicles, he said Mariano was the best of the town’s modern alto players, no question. So did Herb Pomeroy in his interview. And so did Dick Johnson in his, and Johnson went on to say Mariano was the best ballad player he ever knew.

Cover of Prestige LP 153
Charlie Mariano and the Boston All Stars, Prestige LP 153

You can judge for yourself, on a recording made on this day, 61 years ago.

Charlie Mariano is no stranger to this blog, of cours. He was the star soloist with the Nat Pierce Orchestra, and he was part of Boston’s first jazz festival with his band, the Boptet. The people at Prestige Records recognized Mariano as one to watch, and he recorded his first album for that label in 1951, a 10-inch LP titled The New Sounds from Boston. And in spring 1953, he’d make a modest proposal to a handful of his sympatico musician buddies: “let’s start a jazz workshop.” The hands-on, learn-by-doing school they started in a Stuart Street office building was eventually integrated into the Berklee School, but that’s getting ahead of the story.

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July 11: Remembering Jimmy Derba

Photo of Jimmy Derba
Jimmy Derba, 1963. Photo Salem State Archives.

Jimmy Derba is one of those musicians who is often overlooked. Not a big name, but a talented musician whose career was sadly cut short. He was best known as a baritone saxophonist, but he played all the saxes, clarinet, and flute. He was born in Everett, Mass. on June 26, 1935 and died on this day in 1981.

Like many other musicians, Jimmy Derba had a day job. His was as an engineer, with the Boston Redevelopment Authority and later with the Massachusetts Port Authority. But jazz was his passion.

Derba studied at Berklee and took private lessons with Tony Viola, and was a member of Herb Pomeroy’s backup band (the one Phil Wilson calls “the B-Band”) in 1954-55. In 1959 he replaced Jimmy Mosher on baritone in the Pomeroy Orchestra (Mosher moved to alto), and remained when Pomeroy downsized in 1960. He also played with Varty Haroutunian’s Octet, the Wednesday night band at the Stable. He sat next to Dick Johnson in both Herb’s and Varty’s bands.
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June 16, 1958: A Boston Blow-Up at Valli’s

Photo of 76 Warrenton St
In 1958, Valli’s was on the left side at street level

June 16 fell on a Monday, a quiet night in the quiet summer season, when venues closed and musicians and listeners alike headed for the shore. The grand opening of the new Summer Storyville on Cape Cod was two weeks away. But on this Monday, city-bound jazz fans were happily anticipating Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival. Featured was Herb Pomeroy’s Orchestra, tuning up for its debut at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 3—and Gerry Mulligan was on hand as guest soloist.

Not far from the Jazz Night concert, at 76 Warrenton Street, was Valli’s Italian Restaurant, closed as usual on this Monday. Valli’s had opened the previous fall and provided work for a series of trios, including those of Al Vega, Ernie West, and Artie Barsamian. Valli’s also discovered “exotic” dancers, like Zehra the Greek Goddess of Dance, and Sheba, Queen of the Nile (this was at the height of the “baklava bistro” era in downtown Boston).

At 8:30, while Pomeroy’s band was entertaining a crowd of about 15,000 in the Public Garden, all hell broke loose on Warrenton Street. Valli’s blew up.

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