The Troy Street Observer

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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Jan 16: Very Vega

I’m a little early on this posting… January 26, and not the 16th, marks the 61st anniversary of Al Vega recording his LP, The Al Vega Trio, for Prestige (PRLP 152). His was the house trio at the Hi-Hat at the time of the recording in 1953. Vega was joined by Jimmy Zitano on drums, who was soon to leave for Serge Chaloff’s group, and Jack Lawlor on bass.

Lawlor was quite active among the modernists in early 1950s Boston, but not much is known about him. He toured with Chet Baker in 1955 (Metronome reviewed a Baker Quartet concert at Carnegie Hall that spring, with Lawlor aboard), and after that he’s absent from the scene. I once read he died at age 35, but I haven’t been able to verify that.

The Vega trio recorded “Very Vega,” penned by Al himself, on the Prestige album, and I just uploaded it to YouTube:

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May 7, 1956: Byrd Blows on Beacon Hill

Tom Wilson produced three LPs for trumpeter Donald Byrd on Transition Records: Byrd-Jazz (TRLP-5, recorded in Detroit in August 1955), Byrd’s Eye View (TRLP-4, recorded in Cambridge in December 1955), and  Byrd Blows On Beacon Hill (TRLP-17, recorded in Boston on May 7, 1956).

LP Cover of Byrd Blows on Beacon Hill
Byrd Blows on Beacon Hill, TRLP-17

Byrd Blows On Beacon Hill was a quartet date, with bassist Doug Watkins, pianist Ray Santisi, and drummer Jimmy Zitano. Watkins, like Byrd, was a product of the rich Detroit postwar jazz scene, and like Byrd, moved to New York in 1954. Watkins was the original bass player in the Jazz Messengers, and Byrd joined that group when he replaced the original trumpeter, Kenny Dorham.

Santisi and Zitano, of course, were part of the Jazz Workshop crew at the Stable, which is where Byrd first heard them. They had recorded for Wilson on Transition’s first release, Jazz in a Stable.
(more…)

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Apr 1, 1989: Jimmy Zitano Goes Marching in

Jimmy Zitano, the force behind the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra in the 1950s, died in Dallas on April 1, 1989.

There were many good drummers in Boston in the mid-1950s—Alan Dawson, Buzzy Drootin, Baggy Grant, and Jake Hanna to name a few..but even among such illustrious company, Jimmy Zitano, nicknamed “J.Z.,” stood out.

Photo of Jimmy Zitano
Jimmy Zitano 1952

The Boston-born Zitano first came to public attention as drummer in Al Vega’s trio in 1952. They were the house band at the Hi-Hat, and always played a number or two on theclub’s radio broadcasts. Zitano first recorded with Vega’s trio, for Prestige in January 1953.

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March 13, 1955: Jazz in a Stable Recorded

Jazz in a Stable Cover
Jazz in a Stable, TRLP-1

March 13 is the anniversary of a pair of record dates pertinent to the Boston scene. The first, in 1955, was for Jazz in a Stable, by the Jazz Workshop Quintet. This was the house band at the Stable, 20 Huntington Ave, across the street from Storyville. If there was a leader, it was tenor saxophonist Varty Haroutunian (we’ll celebrate his birthday here on March 23), but over time people have associated the recording with Herb Pomeroy because the trumpet star became the best-known of the group. The others were pianist Ray Santisi, bassist John Neves, and drummer Jimmy Zitano, “J.Z.”

This recording, made live at the Stable, also marked the first album made by Tom Wilson’s fledgling Transition Records, and we’ll celebrate Tom Wilson’s birthday here on March 25.

The tunes are mostly standards (“Dear Old Stockholm,” “Off Minor,” “One Bass Hit,” “Moten Swing,”) and the record was favorably reviewed, earning five stars from Down Beat. Metronome called it “nicely turned and almost always exuberant.”  Nat Hentoff, writing in Down Beat (Dec 28, 1955) wrote: “Trumpeter Pomeroy is certainly the standout, but the other four are also good, among Boston’s best and indicative of what you can hear there on the modern kick; mostly familiar and nicely turned and almost always exuberant.” Hentoff gave the record five stars.

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Jan 26, 1953: Al Vega Records for Prestige

January 26, 1953 was a good day for Boston pianists: Al Vega recorded for Prestige, and Dick Twardzik opened with Alan Eager at the Hi-Hat.

Al Vega Trio
Al Vega Trio, Prestige LP 152

Prestige Records wanted to capture some of the young modernists working in Boston, so they recorded Al Vega’s Trio, with Jack Lawlor and Jimmy Zitano, at the Ace Recording Studio on Jan. 26, and Charlie Mariano’s group at Ace on the 27th. The Al Vega Trio was released as a 10-inch LP, Prestige 152.

Meanwhile, Lester Young was a last-minute cancellation at the Hi-Hat, and saxophonist Alan Eager was called to replace him. Eager used a Boston rhythm section of Dick Twardzik, then known for his work with Serge Chaloff; drummer Gene Glennon, who worked with Twardzik and Chaloff on Cape Cod in 1951; and Bernie Griggs, the Hi-Hat’s house bassist. Twardzik and Griggs were on Mariano’s session the next day, along with trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, in what may have been his recording debut, and drummer Jimmy Weiner.

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