Photo of Ray Santisi

Ray Santisi, Stablemate

Pianist Ray Santisi, who died October 28, 2014 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.

Santisi was the last surviving Stablemate—the 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 Santisi today by taking a look at the formative years of his career.

Jazz Workshop: The Beginning

Santisi was one of the young musicians who changed the face of Boston jazz in the early 1950s. Another was Pomeroy, a fellow student at Schillinger House. The two worked together in 1951-52 in Jesse Smith’s Orchestra, playing for dancers on weekends at the King Philip Ballroom in Wrentham, Mass.

Sunday nights were another matter, though. Away from dance band rhythms, Santisi played Bud Powell-influenced bop in the group of another Schillinger student, Charlie Mariano, at the Bostonian Hotel. And through 1952, Santisi worked music jobs outside of jazz while a student, and played the music he loved when he could. (He graduated in 1954, the year the school became the Berklee School of Music.)

All that changed in early 1953 when Mariano proposed the formation of a “jazz workshop” where they could teach classes and give private lessons to musicians attuned to the more modern sounds. And so Charlie, Ray, Herb, and Varty rented space on Stuart Street and gave it a go. It was the first of its kind anywhere. Nat Hentoff in Down Beat called it “a striking new concept of jazz instruction…aimed at providing opportunity for musicians — advanced and beginners — to work and experiment with all phases of jazz under actual playing conditions.” Emphasis, said Mariano, was on “simulating on-the-job conditions…Through pragmatic experience the student will be able to originate and exchange ideas ordinarily not a part of formal instruction.”

Santisi told me, “Schillinger House wasn’t a jazz school, it was a musicians’ school, and Berk came around to the Jazz Workshop to see what we were doing. He asked us if we could do something like it at Schillinger House. That’s how we got started there, Charlie Mariano and I, running jazz workshops on Saturday afternoons.” Thus, Santisi helped to both introduce a new way to teach jazz, and open Berklee’s doors to it.

Jazz in a Stable

In April 1954, Santisi and Haroutunian gave birth to another Boston jazz institution: the jazz policy at the Stable, a small Huntington Ave nightclub. Along with drummer Peter Littman, they formed the original Jazz Workshop Trio. And while the Stable was finding its audience, Santisi made some dates in the recording studio. He made his recording debut in June 1954, as part of the Boots Mussulli Quartet, recording the first half of what would be the saxophonist’s only album as a leader, for Capitol Records. Mussulli and Santisi recorded the remainder of the record in November. Santisi was also on Dick Wetmore’s Bethlehem LP in autumn 1954, and the Serge Chaloff classic, Boston Blow-Up!, on Capitol in April 1955.

Jazz in a Stable Cover

Jazz in a Stable, TRLP-1

By March 1955, the Stable’s house band had expanded to five. The Jazz Workshop Quintet, with Pomeroy, bassist John Neves and drummer Jimmy Zitano alongside Santisi and Haroutunian, recorded Jazz in a Stable, the first album released by Tom Wilson’s Transition label. “Santisi has never sounded as consistently and richly inventive before on record,” noted Down Beat’s five-star review.

Here’s “Moten Swing,” with some great licks by Ray, from Jazz in a Stable (TRLP-1). This record was never reissued in the U.S. and the Japanese reissue has been unavailable for years. I just added this to my YouTube channel.

Santisi was on the Stable’s bandstand every night, either with the small group, which became a sextet with the addition of trumpeter Joe Gordon, or with Pomeroy’s celebrated big band. The Stable was the place to be, and it was during that fertile year of 1955 that Benny Golson penned “Stablemates” for Ray, Herb and Varty. Pomeroy told me how that came about:

Benny came through town with Earl Bostic, and they dropped by the Jazz Workshop, and we told Benny that we’d love to have him write something for the sextet. And he said OK, but he was going to be gone with Bostic and he’d have something when he came back. And he came back with five original tunes, fully arranged, and they were complex arrangements. And he had copied the parts himself!

Varty was handling the business, and he asks Benny how much we owed him. And he said $50 for all five! Remember, these were not slapdash, simple pieces—they were elaborately arranged. And they were great tunes: “Park Avenue Petite,” “Hassan’s Dream,” “City Lights,” “411 West,” and “Stablemates.” He wrote that one for Varty and Ray and me.

Santisi could easily have moved to New York or L.A., but he chose to remain in Boston. He joined the Berklee faculty in 1957, and continued to work at the Stable. However, his pre-Berklee accomplishments in the development of modern jazz in Boston, at the Jazz Workshop and the Stable, were impressive in their own right—impressive enough to merit  Benny Golson’s song.

Of course, “Stablemates” became a jazz standard, but I know of no recording of the Stablemates themselves playing it. So here is Benny Golson himself, from 1958. That’s Lee Morgan on the trumpet, Ray Bryant on piano, Philly Joe on drums, Percy Heath on bass.

We’ll take up part 2 of Ray’s story in a later post.

A personal note: I’d like to acknowledge Ray one more time for his assistance when I was writing The Boston Jazz Chronicles, and his enthusiasm for it when it was published. Ray was one of the Chronicle’s biggest boosters, and he spread news of the book—and copies of it, too—all through Berklee. I will always be grateful for his steady support.