One day during my junior year in high school, a short kid with slicked down black hair and a flashy yellow linen sport jacket stopped me in the corridor between classes. His name was Eddie Silva and his father was a fishing captain. Eddie told me he was starting a nine-piece orchestra to play for weddings and dances and he needed a pianist.
At our first rehearsal, we named ourselves the Modernaires, after the Glenn Miller vocal group. The saxophone section consisted of Eddie himself and Bob Brayman on alto sax with Pat Maranhas and Jimmy Call on tenors. Jimmy, who had a trained voice and sang in all the high school glee club operettas, doubled on vocals. Gil Brown and Frank Domingos, who was in my class, played trumpet, and Ron Brown, who not only looked like Glenn Miller but played like him, was the trombonist. I played piano, with Bud April, who lived in Essex, on drums.
During the years in which the Modernaires came into being, Gloucester was a town full of musicians and music lovers. There was the high school marching band, two American Legion bands, a swing band called The Starlighters, and a host of small dance and jazz bands that played everything from general business gigs, like weddings and parties, to dances in the many bars on Main and Rogers streets. Dives like the Paramount Café, became storied venues, where Jerry “Pack ‘em in” Quinn presided over the drums, and a slew of great trumpeters like “Babe” McCrae and Herb Pomeroy, with Vern Niemi on sax and “Cap” Thomas on bass, blew the roof off every Saturday night.
Musicians like Herb, trumpeter Bud Irving, Ray Bentley, who played sax and clarinet, drummers Ron Gilson and Danny Bloomfield, and trombonist Shorty Perry became role models for my brother Tom and me, along with our piano teacher Don Oakes. We sneaked into the bars to hear them play and we pestered them with questions between sets—What chord changes were they using? Who were they listening to?
Our place of rehearsal was the Gloucester Fraternity Club on Webster Street. With Eddie leading the band we got off to a promising start. There was no piece of music the Brown brothers couldn’t sight read. Together we created a library of stock arrangements, which Eddie picked up at the Boston Music Company—“Blue Velvet,” for slow dancing, Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” for up-tempos. We had thick, corrugated cardboard music stands made with our name stenciled across the front in contemporary script, and for uniforms, we all ordered blue-gray gabardine suits from Robert Hall.
What we played was not strictly jazz, unless we were covering Ellington or Basie tunes. Nevertheless, once we started playing on our own, music became a way of life for Tom and me. As soon as we got home from school, we tuned into Bob “The Robin” Martin’s early evening radio jazz program on WBZ Boston. During nights and long summer afternoons we listened to “Symphony Sid” Torin, on whose program we first heard Bird and Diz’s breathless “Bloomdido,” Bud Powell racing through “Boplicity,” or Fats Navarro’s plangent “Ladybird.” The intricacies of bebop came to excite us more than the Dixieland and Chicago jazz we had first cut our teeth on. Who on piano could compare to Lenny Tristano or Oscar Peterson, except, years later, for Bill Evans? Sid’s taste was for New York style bop, while Bob “The Robin” favored West Coast “cool” jazz—Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers. But we listened to it all.
Our piano teacher Don Oakes, a young and newly married local musician, taught both classical and jazz. Don was an amazing pianist. His hands fairly flew over the keyboard, whether he was playing Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” or “Prelude in C# Minor,” both of which he insisted all of his students master or a straight-ahead version of “Foggy Day.” After he decided we had a feel for the basics, it was boogie-woogie, then blues and jazz improvisation.
“What do you hear in the melody that you’d like to build on?” he’d ask, keeping time with the bass chords and lightly single fingering an improvisation as he sang it to us.
Working with Don we began to understand more fully how the jazz we heard on radio was constructed, not only in terms of the melodic lines but also in the ways the musicians interpreted those melodies. Instead of the chaos, our parents claimed to hear—“All that noise!”—we heard and apprehended form, infinitely complex and subtle at times, or direct and strong and emotional: “I didn’t know what time it was, till I met you!”
It was jazz that taught us how to feel—truly to inhabit our emotions. We were both sensitive kids, who had been read to during our childhood. But it was the songs themselves, heard on the radio, often in the dark of night, emanating from the vast spaces of America, songs about highways (“Get your kicks on Route 66”), about relationships gone awry (“Detour, there’s a muddy road ahead”); songs like “Midnight Sun,” certain phrases of which have the polish of a poem by Wallace Stevens; Billy Strayhorn’s haunting “Lush Life,” or, much later, Michel Legrand and Alan Berman’s “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” as sung by Frank Sinatra, that still entrance me.
Once the Modernaires got off the ground, our parents worried that we might be neglecting our studies; but they were also proud of our accomplishment in having created an orchestra together, one that paid its own way, allowing us to get out of debt pretty quickly for our equipment and to earn twenty-five or thirty dollars apiece per gig (after we joined the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, we could demand union scale). Our parents were also relieved that while rehearsing once or twice a week and playing at least another night, we could “keep out of trouble.” Which we did, for the most part.
When Bob Brayman went away to college the next year, Tom came on the band playing clarinet and tenor sax, both of which he’d studied with Andy Jacobson, one of Gloucester’s legendary musicians, who’d played with the John Philip Sousa band. Practicing a couple of hours a day, Tom learned quickly how to improvise, beginning with a Lester Young pre-bop style and progressing rapidly through Stan Getz and Richie Camuca, the great tenor soloist on the Kenton band.
After Eddie Silva entered the Maine Maritime Academy to begin training for a career in the merchant services, the Modernaires broke up into small groups. For the remainder of my high school career, Tom and I usually played in a small group with Ron and Gil Brown and Bob Shoares on drums—high school parties, weddings on Portuguese Hill, dances at the Annisquam and Eastern Point Yacht clubs: whatever general business came our way.
By then I had stopped studying piano to concentrate on preparing for college; but Tom continued working on the reeds, and he commuted to Boston every Saturday for a piano lesson at the New England Conservatory of Music with classical pianist Miklos Schwalb. After I’d left for college, Tom, who had two more years in high school, formed another big band, one for which he did a lot of the arranging himself. When I came home on summer break, I played piano with this band and with the smaller groups. I also played in college at parties and dances at the fraternity house, and weekends in the bars of Lewiston and at the officers’ club at the Brunswick Naval Air Station.
For several summers, between 1957 and 1959, we performed weekends at the Hawthorne Inn Casino on Eastern Point Road. Tom would be playing tenor sax or vibes, with me on piano and Joe Moceri on drums. Tom had taken up the vibraphone at Berklee and, like every other instrument he tried, he had soon mastered it, playing in the manner of Milt Jackson of The Modern Jazz Quartet.
During the summer before my senior year, I found myself torn between music and writing. I’d become editor of the Quill, the Bowdoin literary magazine, and I spent two summers editing the Cape Ann Summer Sun, a seasonal supplement to the Gloucester Daily Times that appeared as an eight-page weekly. I threw myself into journalism, writing feature articles, book reviews and art criticism with the abandonment I’d never experienced on piano.
Tom brought his own group into the Hawthorne that last summer of 1959 before I sailed for Italy. It was a wonderful hard-bop influenced group with Boston’s Phil Welch on trumpet, Tom on piano, vibes and baritone, Dave Schrier, who was breaking out of hard bop to follow in the footsteps of John Coltrane and Archie Shepp on tenor, and Joe Moceri, as always, on drums.
Tom and I worked on the waterfront during the day, lugging fresh fish to the cutters, running loads of trash to the city dump, even doing some carpentry. At the Hawthorne Casino, the excitement generated by Tom’s new band created a large following. There were parties after the gig, where we met new people, most of them students like ourselves working in Gloucester for the summer. On the Saturday night after Labor Day weekend, just before the casino shut down for the summer, the band played better than ever. That night the Hawthorne Inn, which had closed for the summer immediately after Labor Day, burned to the ground, taking with it the casino and the deli in a conflagration that was described by the state fire marshall as having a “suspicious origin.”
By then my brief career as a jazz and cocktail pianist had ended. Tom’s life in music was just beginning. Shortly after I left for Italy, Tom enlisted in the army in order to attend the U. S. Navy School of Music, in Washington, which was considered one of the finest in the country. For two years in Hawaii, when not playing with or co-directing the Fort Shafter marching band, he formed his own fifteen-piece jazz and dance orchestra, writing the entire book himself. He also played baritone sax and piano in several Honolulu clubs. After his discharge, in December of 1962, Tom returned to Boston, where he joined a group of Berklee classmates to play in the city and at several clubs in Essex County.
I was teaching high school English, having come back from Italy to avoid the draft. For most of the winter and early spring, we spent every weekend on the road together, while Tom performed in Newburyport, Lowell, Hampton Beach and Haverhill. Before leaving for the service, Tom had purchased one of the early Karmann Ghias. After he returned, “the Ghia,” as we called it, was our transport as we drove from city to city, in rain or snow, on icy roads, always aiming to end the night (or morning) with breakfast at the Agawam Diner on Route 1 in Rowley, which remains today one of the last of the great old diners, open day and night. There we’d sit, together or with some of the other musicians, quarterbacking the gig—who played “good,” who needed more work on what tunes—and swapping stories of the road. It was then that Tom and I felt closest to each other and to the writer who meant so much to both of us, especially if we found ourselves in Kerouac’s town of an early morning, tasting one last Johnny Walker Red on the rocks (Jack’s drink), or a wake-up coffee with our breakfast of two eggs over easy and homefries.
After a stint in Denver with the Bud Poindexter Quartet, Tom flew East to New York, where he set out on the road with the Elgart band, led by brothers Les and Larry, who had merged their separate orchestras. By then Tom was mostly playing baritone and reeds (he’d learned flute at the Navy School of Music and he soon added soprano saxophone and bass clarinet to his repertoire). The Elgart stint ended when Tom got the call he had been waiting for from Woody Herman to join him in Toronto. Nick Brignola, Woody’s baritonist, wanted to leave the band, and two of Tom’s Berklee classmates, Bill Chase, Woody’s lead trumpeter, and trombonist Phil Wilson, recommended Tom to Woody. Tom would remain with Woody for ten years, filling the baritone seat of his idol Serge Chaloff and touring with the band through Central and Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Africa and, naturally, the length and breadth of America. The band played at the Palladium in London, at the Montreux and Monterey jazz festivals, at Newport and at Birdland—once opposite Miles’s sextet and another time with Bill Evans opening. In 1954, we had listened raptly to Woody’s Third Herd on Symphony Sid, the band with Stan Getz and Serge Chaloff soloing on “Four Brothers.” Ten years later Tom was recording the same chart with Serge’s name still on the baritone part.
During those years on the road, Tom and Woody became close, Tom driving Woody from gig to gig in Woody’s classic Corvette. Life was hard on the road. There were no vacations and most of one’s salary would be spent paying for hotel accommodations and eating out, often late at night. During those itinerant years, Tom had no permanent home, though for short periods of time he sublet apartments in LA and San Francisco.
Finally, Tom himself had come to the end of the road. It was hardly exciting to play before audiences who no longer knew the band’s book, its history, or the musicians who played their hearts out each night, whether it was at one of the diminishing number of jazz clubs or a county fair, where the band was in competition with hog calling and prize cattle contests, often coming out on the bottom. Reluctantly, he gave Woody his notice during a week of performances in Las Vegas. Tom stayed in Las Vegas for two years, playing for entertainers as varied as Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Elvis Presley. He even went on the road briefly with Elvis, shaking his head as he recounted the sad story of “The King’s” own demise.
While in Las Vegas, Tom managed to save some money. But he missed the jazz life. When he got an invitation to return to Berklee College to teach full-time, he accepted it. The college also offered Tom a home for his own music, a place to rehearse the big band he had dreamed of forming during his years with Woody, along with the musicians and teachers to play in that band.
As soon as Tom moved back to the city he called home, he put the band together, writing most of the music himself. He began a regular schedule of teaching saxophone, arranging, and small group and ensemble playing. Settling into a spacious apartment on Boylston Street, along the Fenway, Tom taught by day and played by night, driving between gigs in a bright yellow Volkswagen bug. We saw a lot of each other in Gloucester and Boston, just like in the old days when we’d shared Tom’s pads on Newbury and Marlborough streets. Tom became a gourmet cook and he found time to read, as he hadn’t on the road, putting together a library on the Second World War, the history of which had fascinated him since high school. He also resumed his favorite non-musical pastime of walking all over the city, especially at night after a gig, when he felt Boston was at its quiet best.
On May 21, 1976, after Tom had been back in Boston for a little more than a year, he invited our mother and me and my friend Emily to a benefit concert he was playing at Masconomet Regional High School, in Topsfield, MA. It was to be the band’s debut, and it was a special event because Herb Pomeroy, Tom’s old teacher and current colleague at Berklee, would also be appearing with Tom and the band. The audience consisted mostly of old jazz buffs, so Tom knew that he could do no wrong in pulling out all the stops to great applause.
The next year was a busy one for Tom, whose energy seemed limitless. Along with teaching, he rehearsed the band one night a week, adding several new arrangements, including a ballad he’d written in memory of his old friend Bill Chase, who had lost his life in an airplane crash, and “City Sweet,” a composition for jazz orchestra, incorporating some of the dissonances and syncopations of Charles Ives, whose music Tom loved, while paying tribute to the city Tom had so happily come home to.
Tom even found time for love, having met a talented young singer who’d been a piano and vocal student at Berklee and was now making her way in the jazz world. Tom and Adrianna performed together, and they would often come to Gloucester for dinner with Emily and me, after which we’d listen to the latest jazz records while smoking some of the good dope Tom was always able to cop.
On April 26, 1977, Emily and I had just arrived home from work and were starting to prepare dinner, when Adrianna called:
“It’s Tom,” she cried into the phone, “Something’s happened to him. You’ve got to come!”
Emily and I jumped into my VW bug, Emily driving. We raced into Boston, parking illegally in front of Tom’s apartment building. There was an ambulance already there and two police cruisers. When I rushed up the stairs, an officer was comforting a sobbing Adrianna. Another officer took me gently aside, asking if I were the brother. When I said yes, he told me Tom had died, apparently of a heart attack. He asked me if I would identify the body. And he accompanied me into Tom’s bedroom, where Tom lay face up on his queen size bed. He looked as if he were asleep.
“It’s my brother,” I said, while the officer explained to me that Adrianna, returning to the apartment from a vocal class, had found Tom unresponsive on the bed and called the police.
The coroner arrived. He was an older man with a neatly trimmed beard and topcoat, even though it was a mild April day. Inviting me to remain in the room, he said he wanted to ask me some questions once he had examined Tom’s body.
“He has all the signs of having had a massive coronary,” the doctor said, indicating a series of livid purple marks extending from Tom’s underarm on the heart side down below his abdomen.
As I looked at Tom, still believing that he was only asleep, I saw that next to him on the bed was a new Charles Mingus big band album, alongside of which lay its cellophane wrapper. Tom had obviously picked it up on the way home from school. He’d unwrapped it and was doubtless reading the liner notes before he dropped off to sleep. From years on the road, there was nothing Tom liked better than an afternoon nap.
When the doctor asked me if there was a history of heart disease in the family, I told him that after several heart attacks, beginning at the age of thirty-seven, our father had died two years before of an acute coronary. Tom was exactly thirty-seven.
Everyone left the room so I could say goodbye to my brother. I stood at the foot of the bed, still unable to believe that Tom wouldn’t wake up smiling lazily, as he often did, from those brief naps of his. I looked around at Tom’s meticulously clean and neat room. On the bedside table was a copy of On the Road, along with Liddell Hart’s history of the Second World War. His yellow Oxford cloth shirt and knife-pressed black slacks were neatly arranged on the chair, his black soft leather Italian shoes, side by side under the chair. Tom had folded down the beige comforter on the bed just below the pillow, but he hadn’t gotten under the covers, so you had a sense that he was just napping, his head on a clean pillow, black silk socks still on his feet.
Whispering goodbye, I kissed Tom on his cold forehead and turned to leave. I felt that I was leaving behind everything we had shared, not only the jazz but the nighttime confidences over the telephone from wherever Tom found himself on the road; talks about the music he was playing or the “cats,” as he called the other players, the humorous or dour things they often said. I felt suddenly and deeply alone, as I prepared to return home to tell my mother that her son, my brother, was dead.
(“Jazz” is a chapter from Peter Anastas’ recently completed memoir From Gloucester Out).
Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucester, is a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.