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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September 7, 1966: Varty’s Jazz Room Opens

Ad for Varty's Jazz Room
Sep 6, 1966 ad for grand opening of Varty’s Jazz Room

Varty Haroutunian had been on the Boston scene for 25 years when he opened Varty’s Jazz Room in September 1966. His claim to fame was as a founding member of the original Jazz Workshop and his nine years as tenor saxophonist at the Stable, where he led the small group that played three nights per week, and played in the sax section in the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra on two more. He was a key figure in Boston’s jazz scene at mid-century, and one, Pomeroy said, who never got the credit he deserved.

Varty had a second role at the Stable, as the business manager for the bands, and in the last few years, as manager of the club itself. The Stable closed in 1962, and when owner Harold Buchhalter reopened on Boylston Street the following year, the club’s name was the Jazz Workshop. Haroutunian managed the club from 1963 to mid 1966 and made it a success, but he ended up as the odd man out when Buchhalter sold the club to Fred Taylor’s group. He wanted to stay in the club business, though, even if it meant competing with the firmly established Jazz Worshop and Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike.


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March 24, 1953: “Let’s Start a Jazz Workshop”

Jazz Workshop ad
The Jazz Workshop at the Stable, 1961 newspaper ad

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.

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March 23, 1922: Varty Haroutunian Born

Photo of Varty Haroutunian
Varty Haroutunian at the Stable, 1959. Photo courtesy Elsa Haroutunian.

An unsung hero of Boston jazz, Varty Haroutunian, was born in Everett, Mass. on March 23, 1922. Even as a high school kid, Haroutunian played a pretty good tenor, good enough to play in the Ken Club’s wartime jam sessions with Red Allen and J.C. Higginbotham, and good enough to sub with name bands at local ballrooms. He liked Tex Beneke, but then he heard his greatest inspiration, Lester Young. Varty had his own group with Al Vega until they both went into the army in 1943. Haroutunian served in the Army Air Force and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After his discharge, Haroutunian studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music but left to tour with Freddie Slack. Back in Boston, he fell in with the beboppers—Byard, Mariano, Chaloff—and in 1953, was one of the founders of the orginal Jazz Workshop, the subject of my blog entry tomorrow.

In April 1954, Haroutunian, along with pianist Ray Santisi and drummer Peter Littman, took the Jazz Workshop around the corner, to a little saloon at 20 Huntington Ave called the Stable. There the Jazz Workshop Trio inaugurated the jazz policy that would continue until 1962, when the building was demolished. Haroutunian was there until the very end. In between, he led the Wednesday-Friday-Saturday quintet or sextet, played in the Pomeroy big band on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and served as business manager for the whole jazz operation at the Stable.

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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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