Monthly Archives: June 2014

2002 Ends With a Birthday Bash for Dick Johnson

jazz logo The year started in March with the Paul Broadnax Quartet. Based on the success of a Sunday concert the previous year I scheduled this concert for a Sunday afternoon. No conflicts to worry about in early March; NFL football was over and the college basketball tournament had yet to start. A Sunday concert offered people an upbeat alternative for a winter day.

PowerJazz unit

PowerJazz unit

April brought the return of The Kubota PowerJazz Unit with Yasko Kubota on piano and Japanese taiko drum, Archie Kubota on bass, taiko drum and bamboo flute, Mike Peipman on trumpet and Larry Finn on drums. The last time Yasko and Archie had performed for Highland Jazz was in 1987. I was amazed; it seemed such a short time ago. Since then PowerJazz had been thrilling audiences with its innovative style.

Yasko began her professional music career at age 18 when she was recognized as a brilliant, young concert pianist. Her love of jazz brought her to Berklee College, where she graduated Cum Laude. the American Music Trust Fund recognized her as one of the “Three of the Best Jazz Pianists” during a celebration of the piano’s 300 year birthday.

Warren Wolf

Warren Wolf

In May we showcased an ensemble of young musicians: the Berklee All-Star Jazz Ensemble. They were an extremely talented and energetic group. Warren Wolf played vibraphone, Kendrick Scott was on drums, Marco Panascia on bass and Jeff Gitelman on guitar. The audience gave them a warm reception, knowing that this was a chance to hear some dynamic musicians as they started their professional careers.

Another newcomer to the Highland Jazz series was the Victor Mendoza Latin Jazz Sextet which opened the 20th season in September. Victor is a Mexican-born vibraphonist and composer. Jazziz Magazine described his music as “variously introspective, pretty and out-and out rhythmically hot.” He was joined by Dick Odgren on saxophone, Rafael Alcala on piano, Pablo Bencid on drums, Egui Castrillo on percussion and Fernando Hergo on bass. Numerous videos on Victor’s website illustrate why he is in such demand as a soloist.

The Fred Haas Quartet presented a program in October called Bossa Nova High, which was a tribute to Charlie Byrd, Stan Getz and Joao Guilberto. The program illustrated how much Brazilian music has influenced jazz. For this concert Fred played both tenor and piano. He was joined by Dave Newsom on guitar, Dave Clark on bass and Jim Lottini on drums.

Marshall Wood suggested that Highland Jazz plan a surprise birthday celebration for Dick Johnson who would be celebrating his 77th birthday on December 1. I thought it was a terrific idea and Marshall agreed to contact the musicians and co-produce the event.

Dick Johnson

Dick Johnson
photograph by Ruth Williams

Our first idea was to hire Dick for the evening and not mention the birthday angle. His wife Rose agreed to keep the secret. Our mistake was sending out fliers describing the event as A Surprise Birthday Celebration for Dick Johnson. His family and the musicians revealed nothing, but the week before the concert one of Dick’s fans mentioned the birthday concert to him. Although it was no longer a total surprise he arrived not knowing how many tributes he would receive that night.

Dick Johnson Birthday Bash

Dick Johnson Birthday Bash left to right Dick Golden, Marshall Wood, Dick Johnson, Gary Johnson
photograph by Ruth Williams

The MC for the evening was Dick Golden of WQRC in Hyannis, MA. Dick Johnson was joined on stage by his long-time musical partner, trumpeter Lou Colombo, his son Gary Johnson on drums, his long-time pianist of choice, Paul Schmeling, bassist Marshall Wood and a favorite vocalist Donna Byrne.

After Dick Golden’s introduction Dick played Artie Shaw’s signature piece “Begin The Beguine.” He then described his early playing days with Lou Colombo who moved the audience with his beautiful rendition of “Stardust.”

It was a night full of surprises: there was a birthday cake complete with singing candle; a tribute from Artie Shaw, who wrote that “No matter how long you live, Dick, you’ll never catch up to me;” and a letter of congratulations from then Massachusetts Governor Jane Smith. After singing Melancholy Baby” Donna described her conversation with Dave McKenna about Dick.

I felt at the end that it was a wonderful way to honor a very special person.

Where are they now?

Warren Wolf’s website explains that he began playing at the age of 3. He was trained on vibraphone, marimba drums and piano. After graduating from Berklee in 2001, Warren was active on the Boston scene. In 2003 he became an instructor in the percussion department at Berklee. Since leaving Berklee he has been very much in demand. He plays piano for the Rachel Price group and is the drummer for alto saxophonist Tia Fuller. He tours widely with three other groups: the Donal Fox Group, Bobby Watson’s “Live and Learn Sextet,” and Christian McBride “And Inside Straight.”

Kendrick Scott leads his own group “Oracle.” His debut album Conviction was recorded by Concord Jazz in 2013.

Marco Panascia now lives in New York City and is a featured player with many working bands, including Kenny Baron, Natalie Cole, Eric Reed, Andy Bey, Peter Bernstein and Dado Moroni. He has also appeared at numerous jazz festivals and venues such as the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Hollywood Bowl and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. His website features a video of his version of “Body and Soul.”

Jeff Gitelman performed on guitar with Stevie Wonder at the NAACP Image Awards in February 2014.

Dick Johnson died on January 10 at the age of 84. The Jazz Times article points out that Dick started his musical career during WWII when he played with the navy band on the USS Pasadena. The Boston Globe article  includes anecdotes and personal remembrances from a variety of musicians.

Dick Golden, the marvelous MC at Dick Johnson’s birthday concert, now lives in Washington, DC. where he teaches jazz traditions at George Washington University. In this interview he reflects on jazz and radio broadcasting.


Mergner, L. (2010). Jazz Clarinetist Dick Johnson Dies at 84 Boston-based player fronted Artie Shaw band for over 20 years.JazzTimes. Retrieved from

White T. (2010). Dick Johnon, 84, jazz artist with Artie Shaw, Tony Retrieved from

Alimansky, Nancy. “Dick Johnson’s 77th Birthday Celebration.” Online video clip.
YouTube. YouTube, 30 May 2014. Web. 9 Sept. 2014.

Alimansky, Nancy. “Dick ‘s 77th Birthday Celebration at Highland Jazz.” 9 Sept. 2014.

Alimansky, Nancy. “Lou Colombo at Dick Johnson’s 77th Birthday Celebration.” Online video clip.
YouTube. YouTube, 30 May 2014. Web. 9 Sept. 2014.

Alimansky, Nancy. “Donna Byrne at Dick Johnson’s 77th Birthday Celebration at Highland Jazz 12/7/2002.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 30 May 2014. Web. 9 Sept. 2014.

Alimansky, Nancy. “Dick Johnson at his 77th Birthday Celebration.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 30 May 2014. Web. 9 Sept. 2014.

2003 celebrates the 20th anniversary of Highland Jazz

jazz logo

The opening concert in 2003 was a reprieve of Women in Jazz.  Alto saxophonist Cercie Miller led the band which included  Diane Wernick on tenor sax, pianist Consuelo Candelaria, bassist Genevieve Rose and drummer Carolyn Castellano. Dominque Eade, whom the New York Times described as “one of the most intelligent vocalists working in jazz today,” was a special guest. This original tune features both saxophonists Cercie and Diane.

One of the advantages of the Christ Episcopal Church venue was that I could sit in the wings and sketch the players during the performance. My vantage point allowed me to paint them from behind, an unusual view but without the pressure of capturing a likeness. That night I did two watercolors: one of Cercie and Dominque and the other of Diane.

Cercie and Dominique

Cercie Miller, Dominique Eade
watercolor by Nancy Alimansky

Diane Wernick

Diane Wernick
watercolor by Nancy Alimansky

April 5 marked The 20th Anniversary Concert. I had been working on this event for more than six months. Marshall Wood was instrumental in helping to organize the musical program for the evening. A total of ten musicians performed. Marshall and I felt it was especially important that each one had equal “air time.” The list read like a Who’s Who of Boston jazz: Tim Ray, piano, Yuron Israel, drums, Marshall Wood bass, Mike Monaghan and Bill Pierce saxophone, Herb Pomeroy trumpet, Kenny Wenzel trombone, Jon Wheatley guitar, and vocalists Semenya McCord and Donna Byrne. Eric Jackson, then host of “Eric in the Evening” at WGBH-FM was the MC for the evening. I was personally very thrilled that so many musicians had agreed to be part of the 20th anniversary. Many of them knew that I planned to retire after the concert; perhaps some wanted to show their appreciation to me and to Highland Jazz.

At intermission Hank Solomon presented me with a proclamation from Mayor Cohen of Newton declaring April 5, 2003 Nancy Alimansky Day. I was really surprised and delighted, although I joked that learning it was “my day” at 9:30 pm didn’t leave me much time to enjoy it!  My comments emphasized the primary goal of the organization: to promote the talent of Boston area musicians.

It was an evening of wonderful music. Semenya performed a Billie Holiday tune, “Stormy Blues,” and reminded the audience that her first tribute concert to Lady Day took place in 1984 during Highland Jazz’s first season. Bill Pierce and Mike Monaghan participated in a friendly but hot battle of tenor saxophones in “Sweet Georgia Brown.” For his solo tune Bill, whom Eric called “Boston Billy,” chose “Jitterbug Waltz.”  Everyone joined in at the end with an energetic version of “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

And then it was over.

Every Jazz Producer Needs a Musician as Advisor

jazz logo Most producers of jazz events are non-musicians. One outstanding exception to this fact is George Wein, who produced the Newport Jazz Festivals. He played jazz piano extremely well on a professional level. He therefore had the respect of the musicians he hired and moreover, he could speak their language.

According to Cathy Lee, former director of Studio Red Top (a nonprofit organization dedicated to showcasing and advancing the work of women in jazz) a musician views a producer in much the same way as a tenant views a landlord. It is someone you have to respect and treat politely but it is clearly not someone who could ever be a friend. You expect the landlord to provide you with a well-kept rental but you never quite trust him/her. And most of the time the tenant feels there is something wrong with the rental that the landlord delays in correcting.

As Cathy explained “most musicians think of producers as ‘suits,’ not musical colleagues and certainly not friends. It is strictly a business relationship, and the best you can expect is to be cordial with each other. It is a rare and beautiful thing when you can have a relationship with a musician that transcends this dynamic.”

On the other hand the producer is drawn to the mystique associated with jazz and the people who play it well. Many producers would like to be friends with musicians, spend time with them and be part of their inner circle. Some of us who tried unsuccessfully to play jazz are drawn to people who actually can create the music we love. But it doesn’t take long to figure out that musicians don’t feel the same way. Most do not want “to hang out” with a producer.

Musicians and producers have different goals. Certainly the producer wants to present an outstanding musical event but it has to be profitable or at least break even. Marketing is a major concern and therefore the producer might try to influence the players about the tunes they select, or the sidemen they hire. For the musicians the musical quality and creativity are the primary concerns.

Someone has to bridge the gap. Enter the musician/advisor. He (or she) is the person who can negotiate for the producer, represent the producer’s interests to the musicians but also teach the producer how to earn the respect of the players.

In the case of Highland Jazz Alex Elin was that person. He was a professional musician who played both tenor saxophone and piano and was an associate professor at Berklee. He was also my friend. When Mario approached me to become involved with the free summer series I asked Alex for advice. He was enthusiastic and after meeting Mario he offered to help. In the beginning that was extremely important. Highland Jazz had no reputation and it is very likely that players were suspicious and even worried about getting paid. The fact that Alex was involved gave them confidence.

I learned from Alex what musicians looked for from a good producer-someone who understood the difficulty of playing jazz in an era when jazz was no longer popular music. I was familiar with this idea since Alex had often talked about his own frustration, of “having been born at the wrong time.”

As a producer I thought a lot about how to get more people to attend our events. From time to time I would come up with some programming scheme that I hoped would draw a big crowd. If it wasn’t a good jazz idea I would hear from Alex and he was usually right. I think every producer needs a sounding board, especially one who represents the musical side first.



A Most Unlikely Beginning

jazz logo I often had coffee at a local bakery in my neighborhood of Newton Highlands, MA. One day in the spring of 1983 the owner, Mario Boccabella, sat down at my table and started to talk about plans for the summer.

“Everyone wants to know what I am planning for this summer. You remember that last year I produced several performances of The Miser by Moliere.”

I did remember the play and thought at the time that Mario mus thave been encouraged by some of his wait staff who were studying acting while working in his restaurant.  Mario had transformed the parking lot behind his bakery into a little theater setting up rows of chairs and even renting professional lighting. When he tried to sell tickets the City explained that he would need to apply for an entertainment license. In the end he abandoned the idea of charging admission.

His new idea for the coming summer was a series of jazz concerts.

“There will be a concert each week during  July and August and then at the end of the summer the audience will vote for their favorite group. We will give out some sort of award to  the winner.”

I was intrigued and agreed to speak with some of musicians whom I knew. Then he left the table. I didn’t see him again until the first week in July when unexpectedly he asked me how the jazz series was going. I told him  I hadn’t done anything, although I had called  one musician who  told me not to get involved.

“He’s just like all business owners, trying to take advantage of us musicians by asking them to play without paying them anything.”

When I relayed this conversation to Mario he was quick to respond that of course he would pay them. Just find out how much they would expect.

A series of frantic meetings followed with Mario and his wife, Antoinette.  We chose the name Highland Jazz because of our Newton Highlands location and People are music for our motto.The plan was to hold four summer concerts, two in July and two in August. We agreed to offer “scale” which for a mid-week gig in 1983 would be about $50 a musician. I hired four different bands, mailed publicity to the newspapers and waited for opening night.