John Neves thought he was going to be a baseball player. He had the tools—agility, focus, strong arm, good hands. A gifted athlete at East Boston High School in the late 1940s, he starred as an all-city second baseman. After that, he played semipro ball around New England, then spent a season as a professional in 1951. He played in North Dakota, with the Fargo-Moorhead Twins, a minor league outpost in the Cleveland Indians system. His jersey number there, as it had been in East Boston, was a backwards 7. The man had a sense of humor!
John’s older brother, pianist and arranger Paul Neves, introduced John to the bass. John studied privately and played with Paul—but he played more baseball than bass in East Boston. Then came Fargo. And then came army service in the Korean War, where a back injury ended his dream of a baseball career. But he didn’t abandon the Old Ball Game completely—he was known as a fierce competitor when he played on Al Vega’s softball team in the 1950s. By that time, though, he was already a professional musician.
The Stable/Jazz Workshop Years
When Neves returned to East Boston in 1954, he focused on playing the bass at the Stable, the haven for modern jazz. It was a long streetcar and subway ride down to the Back Bay, but he did it to sit in with the trio there. Saxophonist Varty Haroutunian and pianist Ray Santisi knew a good thing when they heard it. They hired Neves, and the house trio became a quartet. It became a quintet when trumpeter Herb Pomeroy arrived.
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.
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.
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.
I’ll 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.
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.
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.
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.”
So began Ernie Santosuosso’s review in the Boston Globe on March 6, 1974, the morning after the concert.
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.
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.”
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.
You can judge for yourself, on a recording made on this day, 61 years ago.
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.