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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean opened at Connolly’s on December 17 for a week-long engagement. 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 then 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. 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.
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.