Nick Bertocci, jazz clarinet player, bandleader; at 90

Nick Bertocci played jazz clubs in New York City and Boston. Nick Bertocci played jazz clubs in New York City and Boston.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / April 10, 2009
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As a premed student in his second year at Boston University, Nick Bertocci had a good future in the late 1930s, except for two problems: He wasn't much interested in becoming a doctor, and he had no background in what he really wanted to pursue.

"As he explained to me, he went to talk with a guidance counselor," said his brother, Louis of Medford. "The guidance counselor said, 'What do you want to do?' Nick said, 'I want to get into music, and the counselor said, 'Well, you ought to do that.' "

Playing first on a borrowed saxophone, then moving to clarinet, Mr. Bertocci adopted a stage name and in a few years went from beginner to band leader, playing jazz clubs in New York City and Boston. Mr. Bertocci, a longtime teacher in Cambridge public schools after returning to the Boston area at the end of the 1940s, died of pneumonia on Jan. 30 in the Phillips House unit of Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 90 and lived in Brookline.

The fifth of seven children in an Italian immigrant family in Somerville, Mr. Bertocci did not make the decision to walk away from college lightly, or try to do so without his father's blessing. At 19, he had never played an instrument when he went home to explain that his calling was music, not medicine.

"My father said, 'You'll be happy, but you'll never make any money,' " Louis said.

At first, a brother-in-law let Mr. Bertocci use his saxophone, and he studied harmony and instrumentation to swiftly make up for lost time.

"He was practicing all day with a towel around his neck because he was perspiring," said his wife, Marsha. "They didn't have air conditioning."

"He just ate and drank music," his brother said. "He had to do that, because he went from absolutely nothing and went right into it and started to play saxophone."

Then Mr. Bertocci picked up a clarinet, which has some similarities to the saxophone in the fingering used to produce notes.

"The minute he hit the clarinet, that was it," his wife said.

"He said as soon as he felt the clarinet in his hand, he knew that's what he wanted to do," his brother said. "He didn't care about anything else."

Nicholas D. Bertocci performed as Nick Jerret, with the accent on the second syllable, though it's unclear why he chose that surname. He put together a sextet and, in his early 20s, headed to New York to play at places such as Kelly's Stable on 52nd Street, the heart of the city's thriving jazz community.

He also helped launch the careers of two musicians he brought with him from Boston to New York. Mr. Bertocci's sister Chiarina used the name Frances Wayne to perform with big bands led by Charlie Barnet and Woody Herman. Pianist Ralph Burns, a Newton native, went on to play with Herman and won Academy Awards for adapting music for the movies "Cabaret" and "All That Jazz."

While leading his own groups, Mr. Bertocci branched out into different forms of jazz, playing at various times swing and bebop. His brother said he also accompanied or sat in with musicians such as the trumpeters Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, the saxophonist Charlie Parker, and the singers Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington.

Louis Bertocci still keeps a review from Billboard magazine from 1942 that says in part: "Jerret's clarinet solos are of a sensational nature, involving a fresh style, excellent technique and a wonderful feel for jazz."

His career blossoming, Mr. Bertocci opened the door of his apartment in New York one day and met Marsha DeNapoli.

"We lived in the same building," she said. "I didn't know who he was, and I was a model and an aspiring singer. Somebody said, 'If you want somebody to evaluate what you're doing, there's someone in your building,' so I went and knocked on his door."

They married 60 years ago yesterday.

"There wasn't a person he met that didn't think he was the greatest," she said.

At the end of the 1940s, the Bertoccis moved to Huntington Avenue in Boston and he formed a trio that played local clubs such as the Hi-Hat and the Mayfair. He also listened when friends suggested he go back to school and get his teaching credentials.

Mr. Bertocci attended the New England Conservatory, then taught in the Cambridge school system for 30 years, while giving private lessons. Among his private clarinet students through the years was his brother.

"When he taught, he'd say, 'You know, when you put your mouth around the mouthpiece, you don't squeeze it. You have to be firm, but gentle, otherwise you won't get the right pitch,' " his brother said. "That's the philosophy he used with all his teaching: You have to be firm, but gentle. And that enthused everybody."

Those lessons resonated with students, who remembered Mr. Bertocci years and sometimes decades after he was their teacher.

"Wherever we went, there was someone who said, 'Oh, Mr. Bertocci, I was in your class,' " his wife said.

Louis Bertocci believes his brother's demeanor is part of the reason he was fondly recalled by students and friends.

"Whenever you met him, he always had a smile on his face, and you always had the feeling he would help you out and that he was on your side, no matter what," he said. "He never brushed anyone aside."

In addition to his wife and brother, Mr. Bertocci leaves two daughters, Elissa Perry of Woodland Hills, Calif., and Nikki Esme Beach of Boston; a sister, Tina Cavicchio of Melrose; and a grandson.

A private gathering to celebrate his life and music will be held in Cambridge on July 26.