Ray Santisi performing at the Top of the Hub restaurant in 1981.
As he helped his Berklee College of Music students become better musicians, and in some cases famous performers, Ray Santisi liked to tell the story of when he was their age and had a chance to play with Charlie Parker, the legendary jazz saxophonist.
“Being a young guy, I thought I’d be esoteric and dazzle Bird with chord changes,” Mr. Santisi told the Globe in 1981. “We were playing ‘I’ll Remember April’ at the time and I was kind of taking it out my own way and it wasn’t very good. At the end of the tune, Parker said, ‘You know, I like to be able to stop wherever I happen to be in my solo and be able to play the melody to the song, and whatever you’re playing behind me should fit.’ I got his message: You really have to listen to what the soloist is playing.”
Taking that brief lesson to heart, Mr. Santisi became the pianist whom musicians passing through Boston wanted with them on the bandstand, and his stable of Berklee students included a who’s who of jazz keyboard virtuosity: Diana Krall, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul.
“Ray has become somewhat of a legend over time,” said Stephany Tiernan, who chairs Berklee’s piano department. “He was, pardon the pun, a key player. He was the house pianist who played with all these famous people whom most can only dream about playing with. He really embodied that jazz spirit and lived it.”
Mr. Santisi taught at Berklee for 57 years, working with students until two weeks before he died of complications from heart surgery Oct. 28 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He was 81 and had lived in Boston all his life.
With an elegant, memorable touch, Mr. Santisi coaxed sounds from the piano that no one could match.
“I could always tell it was Ray playing, if I was in a different room and heard him,” Tiernan said. “Ray had a very polished, refined jazz vocabulary and technique.”
Mr. Santisi “had a very distinctive way of making sounds on the piano that was just original,” said Jonathan Feist, editor in chief of Berklee Press.
“I often had the experience with him of hearing him play something, and then hearing one of his very advanced students play the same thing, and it sounded so different. There was a warmth and a roundness and a musicality to his playing. It was very unusual and I don’t know how he did it, and I’m not sure he did, either,” Feist said, laughing as he added: “Maybe he did.”
As he spoke with the Globe in 1981, Mr. Santisi sat at a piano in the Top of the Hub restaurant on the 52d floor of the Prudential Tower. He had played in venues as close as New York City and as distant as Los Angeles, but always returned to the city that stretched out far below the windows that surveyed Boston’s neighborhoods and far beyond.
“Because I have been given the gift of music-making, I can appreciate what it has done for me,” he said that day. “I have been able to communicate my philosophy of life to audiences all over the world.”
Mr. Santisi grew up in Jamaica Plain, the eighth and youngest child of Italian immigrants. During theDepression, “the family would scrounge together the dollar for his weekly lesson,” said his nephew Frank Santisi of Westwood.
A scholarship student, Mr. Santisi attended what was then called Schillinger House. By the time he graduated and started teaching there in 1957, it had been renamed Berklee School of Music, and later became Berklee College of Music.
Along with teaching, he performed regularly and helped run jazz clubs. “He learned from playing. He played every night,” Tiernan said.
Mr. Santisi “developed a way of teaching and he even developed his own language, his own words, his own vocabulary for describing techniques,” she said.
“For example,” Tiernan added, if Mr. Santisi was explaining how to turn a sound or a passage from a saxophone solo into something for the keyboard, “he’d say, ‘This needs to be pianisticized.’ ”
Masako Jasmine Yotsugi, who came to Berklee from Japan and studied with Mr. Santisi, said that “as a teacher, he was very original and very organic.”
“He also said he constantly learned from students,” said Yotsugi, who became his companion for many years. “His teaching was very special. He actually changed my life. I learned not only jazz, I learned life from him.”
Among Mr. Santisi’s best-known students was Diana Krall, the jazz pianist and vocalist who, like some of his other students, went on to be awarded Grammys.
“Diana was always a terrific pianist, she used a great deal of economy in her playing,” Mr. Santisi once told an interviewer for a Berklee faculty profile.
“One day during a lesson, I simply asked her, can you sing something? Apparently she had never or rarely done that,” he recalled. “The minute she started, I said ‘Don’t stop.’ She had a lovely, natural voice, perfect control and a nice vibrato.”
In the office where he taught, Mr. Santisi “had these two beautiful Steinways,” Feist said, “but you couldn’t see them because they were covered with thousands and thousands of pieces of paper” – compositions and technical exercises that spilled off the edges.
On stage, though, there was no tidier player in Boston.
“When he accompanied someone, he had a very sparse, spacious style,” Feist said. “He just beautifully framed what anyone else was doing and he had such a good ear. It was a very special talent that he had, a very unique way of thinking about music.”
“A good piano player can make or break anybody,” said Larry Monroe, a saxophonist and former Berklee vice president for international programs, who had performed with Mr. Santisi.
While soloing at a gig, Monroe said, “when you made your own little variation that should have caught him by surprise, he was right there with you, as if he had heard it all before.”
A funeral Mass was said for Mr. Santisi, who was the last of his siblings. “He was married to two things: He was married to performing and to teaching,” said his nephew Frank. “Those were his two passions, and he was very lucky to be able to live his life being able to do those things right up to his death.”
On stage, or in Berklee’s classrooms and hallways, Mr. Santisi usually wore a white turtleneck and a jacket. “Even his physical style of clothing never changed,” Tiernan said. “He found his style and kept it, physically and musically.”
“He was like the consummate jazz cat,” Feist said.
“Among his peers he was one of the most respected musicians at Berklee,” he added. “Revered, too, is a word that gets bandied about. Everyone had very tremendous, deep respect for Ray as a musician.”
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