Boots Mussulli, the diminutive giant

    The altoist shone in Kenton's Artistry In Rhythm orchestra, where, he said, Kenton's arrangements 'seemed to open up the chords'

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    Boots Mussulli

    Back in the 50s, Boots Mussulli was an integral part of a thriving, Boston-based jazz scene that included Serge Chaloff, Charlie Mariano, Richard Twardzik and Jaki Byard. Born on 18 November 1917 in Milford, Massachusetts, he began learning the alto and clarinet at the age of 12. A diligent practice regime of six hours a day eventually resulted in a quite prodigious technique which reflected his Jimmy Dorsey and Benny Carter influences. After graduating from Milford High School in 1935 he joined Mal Hallett’s big band which worked a circuit of ballrooms throughout New England. Hallett had studied at the Boston Conservatory and Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, Toots Mondello, Don Fagerquist and Jack Jenney all worked with him at various times over the years.

    In 1942 Teddy Powell recruited him after Irving Fazola left to join Horace Heidt. Lee Konitz told me that he joined the band a little later as a replacement for Charlie Ventura which meant he had to handle all the hot tenor solos. Lee admitted this was a little beyond him at the time. “Powell had a fine jazz-dance band with good musicians like Boots who was very encouraging but mystified by my lack of knowledge. He was a lovely guy and not only a very fine saxophone player but also the best poker player in the band – he never lost.”

    In September 1944 Mussulli joined Stan Kenton’s Artistry In Rhythm orchestra in the jazz alto chair. Boots said at the time “Kenton’s arrangements seemed to open up the chords, making them sound fuller, richer and more colourful than jazz ever sounded before.” Michael Sparke, in his definitive Kenton biography, had this to say about him: “Boots was a full-toned, skilful soloist in the Benny Carter tradition who would play an increasingly important role in the band over the next few years. Mussulli was one of the giants of the Artistry orchestra”. He was heavily featured during his first stay with the band, which lasted until April 1947 and Balboa Bash, Concerto To End All Concertos, The Man I Love, Southern Scandal, Summertime, Tea For Two, Intermission Riff and Two Moose In A Caboose are all fine examples of his work with Kenton. The latter also featured his good friend Vido Musso, who sat next to him in the section. They roomed and hung out together on the road and as they were heavy-set men of Italian descent, the band referred to them as “the Mafia”. Musso was apparently not a great reader so would depend on his friend to help him out from time to time. During his time with Kenton, Mussulli was regularly included in the Downbeat and Metronome alto polls. His highest placing was fourth in 1946 and again in 1947. 

    Intermission Riff was essentially a head arrangement and remained in the book until its final flowering in 1972 when it was recorded at London’s Fairfield Hall. Al Anthony, the lead alto, described the genesis of this Kenton classic to Sparke – “Between shows at the Paramount Theatre in New York, Ray Wetzel and the guys would blow to get their chops in shape. He got a riff going and a few days later some trombones joined in. Boots came up with a reed counter-melody and over the weeks we kept adding and adding and voilà! We had a great chart that we played on shows and finally recorded in 1945.” It can be heard on YouTube together with Mussulli’s The Man I Love feature. Boots appeared in two brief Kenton films – Artistry In Rhythm (1944) for Universal when Stan Getz was in the section and Let’s Make Rhythm (1947) for RKO. He can also be seen with the band In Talk About A Lady, a full-length 1945 Columbia release featuring Forrest Tucker and the now forgotten Jinx Falkenburg.

    His final solo with the Artistry In Rhythm orchestra was The Fatal Apple on 1 April 1947. The following month Kenton disbanded and then reformed in September under the “progressive jazz” banner. The leader wanted Boots for his ambitious new band but Boots listened to Rose, his wife, who said “It was fun but living on trains and buses got to be too much.”

    Boots joined Vido Musso’s All-Stars for a two-month engagement at Chicago’s Hotel Sherman beginning in June 1947. It was an eight-piece group that included Ray Wetzel (later replaced by Buddy Childers) and Kai Winding (later replaced by Earl Swope). Eight titles were recorded on LP (Unique Jazz U36) but have never been released on CD. He was with Gene Krupa for a while in 1948 but did not record with the band. The following year Charlie Ventura recruited him for his Bop For The People group where he took over from Charlie’s brother Ben on baritone and alto. Also featuring Conte Candoli, Bennie Green, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, the band had enormous appeal, breaking attendance records at the Royal Roost. Ronnie Scott heard them at one of the clubs on 52nd Street and “marvelled at the atmosphere” they created. In 1948 Bop For The People took over from the Nat King Cole trio as number one in Downbeat’s small-combo section and the following year it won the Orchestra World and Metronome polls. Kral did most of the writing and the clever blending of the horns with Jackie and Roy’s voices gave the ensemble its unique appeal.

    The best example of what the group had to offer is the famous Pasadena concert that took place 9 May 1949, where they shared the stage with Erroll Garner, Roy Eldridge, Teddy Edwards and Jimmy Witherspoon. In his introductions the leader described Boots as “the genius of the alto and baritone sax” and he has features on How High The Moon, Boptura, High On An Open Mike (the group’s theme) and Birdland. The latter is a Gene Roland blues with a Honeysuckle Rose bridge – not to be confused with the Joe Zawinul original of the same name. Their humorous and quite brilliant reconstruction of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles is also included but soon after the concert, Ventura decided to disband. In 2006 Jazzwise asked British baritonist John Surman to nominate the record that “changed his life” as a young musician. He chose Charlie Ventura’s Pasadena concert.

    Mussulli returned to his home town later that year where he opened his own club, the Crystal Room. Performances were often broadcast on Milford’s local radio station, WMRC. When he played there with his quartet (Dave McKenna, Sonny Dee and Alan Dawson) the flyers advertised “No Admission – No Cover – Air Cooled”. He also began teaching and a very partial list of his students would include Don Fagerquist, Don Ellis, Frankie Capp and Leo Wright. Another student was McKenna, who said “Boots was like an uncle to me. Words can’t express my feelings for the man.” Eventually he was teaching some 60 lessons a week.

    Charlie Parker often played the Crystal Room and when he did, the cover charge was $1.00. He stayed at Boots’ house where he apparently enjoyed Rose’s spaghetti dinners. In 1951 Mussulli organised a five-city tour featuring Parker with Serge Chaloff performing through Massachusetts and into Connecticut. Abe Turchen (Woody Herman’s manager) once telephoned Boots, saying “I’ve got Monday night free.” Boots offered him “gas money” ($400) and free meals at the club for the band which everyone was happy with because the food there was so good. Even Duke Ellington once played the Crystal Room with the same arrangement but with an additional proviso on the contract: Johnny Hodges’ chair had to be raised four inches above the saxophone section. Count Basie, Harry James, Lionel Hampton, Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, the Four Freshmen, Maynard Ferguson and many other headliners all played at the club. Meredith d’Ambrosio told me that the first time she ever sang with a big band was when Roger Kellaway encouraged her to sit in at the Crystal Room with Ferguson. She also said “Boots had a great reputation among his peers.”

    Away from his entrepreneurial duties at the club Boots playing career continued to thrive during the 50s. In 1952 Kenton asked him to help out when Lennie Niehaus was drafted. Later that year he took over on baritone as a temporary replacement for Bob Gioga who had been with the band since 1940. Niehaus once told me that he “loved Boots because he was such a great guy”. He continued “I wasn’t one of the poker-playing bunch but I could hear the guys in the back of the bus getting pretty angry with him because he always seemed to win.” He also led the house band for a while at Christy’s, a restaurant just outside Boston. The personnel included Richard Twardzik, Howard McGhee and Roy Haynes. In 1954 he worked at Boston’s Storyville with Serge Challof and in March that year he was featured on Serge’s first studio date as a leader since 1949. Chaloff wrote all the arrangements and Boots, of course, sight-read the parts with ease.

    Three months later he was one of the first artists celebrated in the Stan Kenton Presents series. Four of the selections feature him on baritone displaying a powerful Leo Parker-like influence, especially on Blues In The Night. A year later, along with Herb Pomeroy and Ray Santisi, he appeared on Chaloff’s Boston Blow Up (which contains two of Serge’s greatest ever ballad performances – Body And Soul and What’s New). Chaloff took the group on the road with Richard Twardzik replacing Santisi for residencies in Washington, Detroit, River Rouge and Baltimore, culminating in a memorable performance at the Boston Arts Festival in 1955. One of their selections was Twardzik’s Fable Of Mable, which – according to Metronome’s review – “was a considerable improvement on the recorded version”. That year he was heard on the Steve Allen TV show in New York with Chaloff, Sonny Stitt and Doc Severinsen. The following year he co-led a quartet with Toshiko Akiyoshi at Storyville while she studied at Berklee. They recorded five titles in July for the Storyville label and Boots apparently acted as her legal guardian for a while.

    He often played lead alto with Herb Pomeroy’s big band at the Stable in Boston and joined them when they “stood New York’s Birdland on its ear for two weeks in 1957”. Boots declined an invitation to join Benny Goodman, who had been impressed when he heard him at the club. He is on the band’s Life Is A Many Splendored Gig CD, soloing on No One Will Room With Me, Jack Spratt and Big Man. It was awarded five stars by Dom Cerulli who said in his Downbeat review “This band can hold its own in any setting.” Zoot Sims was the guest soloist, and multi-instrumentalist Jaki Byard was in the section on tenor. (Paul Desmond once heard him playing the piano at the 1969 New Orleans Jazz Festival. Getting up from the piano bench, Byard picked up someone’s alto and played a powerful solo. The witty Mr. Desmond turned to his friend and said “I wish he’d mind his own business!”)

    In 1965 he formed a very successful youth band which was invited to perform at the 1967 Newport Jazz Festival on 3 July. It shared the stage with the Don Ellis orchestra and after a 35-minute set which concluded with Neal Hefti’s Splanky, the Milford Daily News reported ”The press section was on its feet, leading the audience in enthusiastic applause.” However, Boots Mussulli, “The Music Man from Milford”, had been suffering from cancer and died a few short months later on 23 September 1967.

    Selected discography
    As leader
    Boots Mussulli: Little Man (Fresh Sound Records FSR-CD 1133)
    As sideman
    Stan Kenton: The Complete Capitol Studio Recordings Of Stan Kenton 1943-1947 (Mosaic CD MD9-163)
    Charlie Ventura: Bop For The People (Properbox 41)
    Serge Chaloff: The Fable Of Mable (Properbox 158)
    Serge Chaloff: Boston Blow-Up! (Essential Jazz Classics EJC 55569CD)
    Herb Pomeroy And His Orchestra: Band In Boston (Fresh Sound Records FSR-CD 571)