Photo of John Neves in 1959
John Neves in 1959

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—neves. 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.

Most jazz fans who know John Neves associate him with Herb Pomeroy, and with good reason. Neves was the bassist in the celebrated Herb Pomeroy Orchestra from 1955 to 1960, and again from 1977 to 1983 when Pomeroy re-formed it. They played together nightly at the Stable in the 1950s, and in Pomeroy’s quintet in the early 1960s. Finally, the two were faculty colleagues at Berklee from 1975 until Neves’s death in 1988.

Here’s John Neves with the Pomeroy big band, with “Wolafunt’s Lament,” from the album Life Is a Many Splendored Gig. John walks us in and out of this one.

Working with Pomeroy was John’s bread-and-butter, but he had other music to play and found different outlets for it. Neves toured with Johnny Mathis in January 1958 (singers sought him out throughout his career), and then with George Shearing. In 1959 he worked with Ken McIntyre, both as a duo and in a quintet. He reunited with his brother Paul in 1959-60 to form a trio with drummer Alan Dawson. Taking inspiration from the M.J.Q., they played regularly at 47 Mount Auburn, a Cambridge coffeehouse and forerunner of today’s Club Passim. Neves worked with Hal Galper and Sam Rivers at the same club.

Neves left Boston in late 1960 to go with Maynard Ferguson’s big band, and in late 1961 moved from there to Stan Getz’s quartet. The jazz world was reminded of this recently when Verve issued the previously unreleased recording, Getz at the Gate (extended review here).

The Stable closed in late 1962. Its owner, Harold Buchhalter, moved the operation over to Boylston Street and christened his new club the Jazz Workshop. The grand opening in September 1963 featured Stan Getz, and Neves was on the bandstand with him—and with many other artists who followed. Meanwhile, Neves, Santisi and Dawson served as house trio at Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike. Their trio was the go-to Boston rhythm section of the 1960s.

The Changing Scene of the 1970s

The early 1970s did no favors for the mainstream jazz players, John Neves included. Lennie’s closed, there was little call for house trios, Pomeroy’s orchestra was long since disbanded, rock bands were headlining at the Newport Jazz Festival. When Berklee offered him a teaching position in 1975, Neves readily accepted.

Berklee led Neves to more gigs as well, often in the company of his faculty colleagues. Pomeroy and Santisi were there, as were Phil Wilson and John LaPorta and Maggi Scott. When Pomeroy re-formed his big band in 1977, Neves was on it. He became a regular in rooms like Lulu White’s and the Regattabar in Cambridge. He was part of Scott’s trio for almost three years at Zachary’s in the Collonade Hotel.

Neves was only 57 when he died of a heart attack on July 18, 1988. Scott and Pomeroy each presented a tribute concert in his honor. Scott told journalist Ernie Santosuosso that Neves was exceptional: “He had the Ray Brown feel, the instinct, and John could hear everything. He had an innate feel of time. His time was impeccable. His sound, the tone he got, was always very full. He was like a clock.”

The Quiet Man as Sideman

John Neves was a private man, the archetype of an artist who let his music do the talking. Anyone wanting to find out more about him will inevitably be disappointed. He never recorded an album as a leader, or led a band branded with his name. He was a career sideman. He’s listed in Feather’s 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz, but not the later editions, and he’s absent from the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Much of what is available online is copied from Feather, although Mike Fitzgerald has compiled a comprehensive Neves discography. Doug Ramsey wrote a short Rifftides post in 2017.

John Neves should be better known, but he spent almost his entire career in Boston. Perhaps Neves never thought he had all the musical tools he’d need for a successful career in New York. Or maybe he lost interest in the idea. By staying here, he enriched the Boston scene immeasurably.

Jazz Bohemia Revisited with Al Francis

Neves named Ray Brown and Percy Heath as two of his favorite bassists in the Encyclopedia of Jazz. Brown’s influence is apparent, in Neves’s articulate play and big sound. Like Heath, he could play chamber jazz with restraint. (Also like Heath, he didn’t take many solos.) You can hear echoes of both on an overlooked gem recorded by vibraphonist Al Francis, Jazz Bohemia Revisited (LCU 0251, 1986), with Joe Hunt on drums. It was inspired by the sounds of the early sixties Village jazz scene.

In “Wha Love,” you can hear Brown’s influence in John’s confident, rhythmic drive and those big round notes. I love the way Neves asserts the role of the bass in this trio!

“Village Nights” is a study in shifting moods and tempos with some Heath-ish bass. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise the play of drummer Joe Hunt, a master of percussive fills and color, on both tracks. This is a trio to savor.