Andy McGhee was back in Boston in fall 1966, off the road after three years of bus rides with Woody Herman’s orchestra. Count Basie heard he was available and offered him a job, but McGhee declined. McGhee, with a family to support, wanted to stay home.
Fortunately, a door opened for McGhee, and the man holding it was Lawrence Berk. It was the door at 1140 Boylston Street, the brand-new home of the Berklee School (not yet college) of Music. Just inside that door was McGhee’s old friend from the late 1940s, Charlie Mariano.
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.
When someone dies, we sometimes hear a tongue-in-cheek comment regarding the disposition of the departed’s worldly possessions: “You live, you die, your stuff goes out on the curb.” There are too many stories of lifetime LP collection ending up in a thrift shop donations bin, or of old scrapbooks being thrown away. When the time came for the family of pianist Ray Santisi to empty his apartment, they asked drummer Don McBride to help them ensure that none of Ray’s musical artifacts accidentally landed on the curb.
McBride and Santisi went way back—Don had known Ray for close to 60 years, from the time of the original Jazz Workshop on Stuart Street. Naturally he said yes, and some things of musical interest did turn up.
They found, for instance, a big box of reel-to-reel tapes, dozens of them, mostly from the 1960s, in the back of a closet. I’m sure Ray had planned to do something with them someday—many of us have rainy day projects that we never seem to get to. McBride looked at the tapes, recognized them for the treasures they were, and with the family’s blessing, took them away.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean opened at Connolly’s on December 17 for a week-long engagement, and as was the custom at Connolly’s then, McLean worked as featured soloist with a local rhythm section. Jim Connolly hired a good one: pianist Ray Santisi, bassist John Neves, and drummer Tony Williams.
Santisi and Neves were obvious choices. They’d already been playing together for nine years, starting as the Jazz Workshop Quartet at the Stable and with all subsequent bands that called that venue home. With Jimmy Zitano, they formed the rhythm section that drove the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra.
Both had been branching out as well. Santisi toured earlier in 1962 with Buddy DeFranco, and Neves spent time in 1961 with Maynard Ferguson, and later worked with the small groups of Stan Getz and Gary Burton. Santisi was in his fifth year teaching at Berklee.
Alto and baritone saxophonist Boots Mussulli records his only album as a leader, for the Kenton Presents Jazz series on Capitol, titled Boots Mussulli (Capitol T6506).
Henry “Boots” Mussulli, the saxophonist, composer, and arranger from Milford, Mass., had certainly put in his time on the road with the big bands, beginning with Mal Hallett in the mid-thirties and later including Mel Powell, Stan Kenton, Vido Musso, and Gene Krupa. His playing with Kenton made him well-known in jazz circles, but it changed after he heard Charlie Parker.
By the early 1950s, he was back in Milford, teaching and leading a small group. He toured with Kenton in 1952 and afterwards found himself drawn to the percolating Boston scene, getting involved at the Jazz Workshop in 1953. Mussulli was always known as a steady, reliable guy, and in March 1954, George Wein paired him with the erratic baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff on a Storyville Records date. The result was the LP Serge and Boots.
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).
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…)
Charlie Mariano had an idea for a “jazz workshop.” He suggested to Varty Haroutunian, Herb Pomeroy, and Ray Santisi that they start a school where jazz musicians could learn by doing. They would have students play in a job setting with professionals, teach private lessons, and host jam sessions. They rented space on Stuart Street near Copley Square and started the first Jazz Workshop. Theirs was a new approach, even noted in Down Beat. It was June 1953.
The time was right, and the Jazz Workshop attracted students. Others on the staff included Jaki Byard, Dick Wetmore, Serge Chaloff, Jimmy Woode, and Jake Hanna. And the name-band guys from Storyville used to come by to see what was going on, so your drum lesson one week might be taught by Jo Jones. Lessons cost the student a dollar, half going to the instructor and half to the school. But that fee was fungible; one student remembers gaining admittance by giving Chaloff the school lunch his mom had packed him.
Spring 1954 brought changes, and opportunities. First, Larry Berk asked Santisi if they could bring their workshop approach to Schillinger House, and he started running Saturday sessions there. That’s the start of a whole other story. Second, Mariano and Pomeroy went with Kenton in April 1954, which led to the closing of the Jazz Workshop school. Third, Dick O’Donnell, who ran a bar around the corner called the Stable, invited the Workshop crew to bring some jazz into his club. They did: tenor saxophonist Haroutunian, pianist Santisi, and drummer Peter Littman went into the Stable in April 1954 as the Jazz Workshop Trio and set in motion another chain of events.