Duke Ellington wrote for Broadway only once, for Beggar’s Holiday in 1946. It wasn’t called that during its three-week tryout at the Boston Opera House, though. That December, it was called Twilight Alley, a street described by Boston Post critic Elliot Norton as “a generally handsome thoroughfare.” But, he immediately added, “It leads nowhere, and it is uphill most of the way, in a dull neighborhood where the folks are rather tired and tiresome, and the jokes are dull.”
Newspaper ad for Twilight Alley, December 1946
Ellington wrote the music, and John LaTouche wrote the book and lyrics to Twilight Alley, “a parallel in tempo to John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera,” a classic satire from the 18th century. Ellington sent Billy Strayhorn to Boston as arranger.
The great—and greatly underrated—trumpeter Kenny Dorham was in a bad way in late 1972. His kidneys were failing and he was undergoing 15 hours of dialysis per week, and he was unable to work full time as a musician. As word of his plight circulated, people on both coasts planned benefit concerts on his behalf. In Boston, trumpeters Mark Harvey and Claudio Roditi organized a Dorham benefit, and even better, Dorham would be able to attend and play.
Kenny Dorham, 1924–1972
Although often overshadowed by other trumpeters, Kenny Dorham had a stellar career in the bop/hard bop years. He was the original trumpeter in the Jazz Messengers, replaced Clifford Brown in the Max Roach Quintet, and worked and recorded extensively with tenor saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, and Joe Henderson. Dorham recorded nearly 20 albums under his own name and was a sideman on dozens of others. Some of his compositions, such as “Una Mas” and “Blue Bossa,” were already standards.
One of my favorite “lost” Boston records is Charlene Bartley’s The Weekend of a Private Secretary, originally released in 1957 (RCA LPM-1478). It’s the story in song of a woman who weekends in Havana, finds romance (c’mon now, it’s the fifties), and returns home sadder but wiser. Bartley and the album’s guitarist, Don Alessi, were working the singers’ rooms in Boston prior to the record’s release, and an important one was the Jewel Room in the Bostonian Hotel, now part of the Berklee College of Music.
Oh, those ’50s RCA covers…Weekend of a Private Secretary, LPM-1478, 1957
Bartley hailed from Los Angeles, and it was bandleader Al Donahue who initially brought her back East. The Boston-born Donahue hired Bartley in California in late 1947. They recorded a few sides on the Tune-Disk label just before the second recording ban took effect, and at least one of them, “My Old Fashioned Gal,” ended up on the Boston Crystal-Tone label (Crystal-Tone 523) in 1948. Donahue was back in Boston, with Bartley singing, in 1949.
Bartley toured with Donahue in the early 1950s, but she apparently gave up the road to settle in Boston. Donahue made an annual stop in Boston for a long residence at the Statler Hotel, and Bartley sang with him there through 1957. She also recorded a forgettable single on his Aldon Records label in 1956, but by that time she was on the staff at Boston’s WHDH-AM. There she met guitarist Don Alessi, one of the Park Squares, a vocal-and-instrumental group then providing music on both radio and television broadcasts.
Two of Boston’s finest modern-era saxophonists were born in November, 1923: Charlie Mariano on the 12th, and Serge Chaloff on the 24th. (Well, OK, other local-impact saxophonists born in November include Sam Margolis on the 1st, Andy McGhee on the 3rd, Jay Migliori on the 14th, Boots Mussulli on the 18th, Bob Freedman on the 23rd, and Gigi Gryce on the 28th. We’re talking all-stars here.).
Sonny Truitt, Charlie Mariano, and Serge Chaloff: the Boptet, well chilled
Mariano and Chaloff rubbed shoulders often between 1949 and 1954, and two encounters stand out as significant. One was recorded on April 16, 1949, and thus saved, while the second, a live set played by the Charlie Mariano Boptet on May 21, 1950, is forgotten.
Charlie and Serge were the best known modern jazz players in Boston, but the cast of characters included Nat Pierce ( here and here) in whose orchestra Mariano was the star soloist, and a number of others in that 1948-50 band. There was drummer Joe MacDonald, who with Pierce and Mariano had formed the first trio to play jazz at the Hi-Hat in 1948. Trumpeters Gait Preddy and Don Stratton, trombonist Mert Goodspeed and Sonny Truitt, and bassist Frank Vaccaro were also with Pierce.
Uphams Corner in Dorchester was historically a busy commercial area, located at the intersection of Columbia Ave and Dudley Street, and served by a half-dozen trolley lines. For entertainment, it boasted the 1400-seat Strand Theatre, in its early days a vaudeville house and later a movie palace.
The Strand Theatre in Uphams Corner. It now has a new marquee.
The postwar years were not kind to Uphams Corner, as the trolleys stopped running, people moved out, and businesses closed. The Strand hung on until 1969. Then it went dark and became one more abandoned building in a neighborhood in decline.
In the mid-1970s, some Uphams Corner neighbors battled back, and organized to renovate and reopen the Strand—not as a movie house, but as a performing arts center. Supported almost entirely by government grants, the M. Harriet McCormack Center for the Arts achieved this goal and celebrated with a gala opening on November 23, 1979. The Count Basie Orchestra performed at the inaugural concert.
Among the more notable characters on the Boston jazz scene at mid-century was Father Norman J. O’Connor, the “Jazz Priest,” who doubled as a Catholic priest and a nationally recognized authority on jazz. He saw no contradiction between the two, and people generally agreed with him. “Most people accept you in the role you’re doing: as a speaker on a subject they’re interested in,” he told Down Beat, who put him on the cover of the November 14, 1957 issue.
Father O’Connor on the cover of Down Beat, Nov 14, 1957. Copyright Maher Publications.
Norman James O’Connor was born in Detroit on November 20, 1921. His mother insisted he study either piano or violin, and Norman took up the piano, which he regretfully gave up when he had no time to practice in college. O’Connor could not remember a time when he wasn’t listening to and studying jazz.
O’Connor was ordained a priest in the Paulist order in 1948 and arrived in Boston in 1951. He served for ten years as chaplain of the Newman Club at Boston University, where he also taught history and philosophy. (“Students are a delightful, wonderful group of people,” he later told the New York Sunday News. “They have enthusiasm and they are willing to fight for the future.”) His days were busy, but he made time to indulge his passion for jazz at Storyville.
When the Trinidad Lounge opened in November 1958, the Boston jazz club scene was in transition. Nineteen fifty-five had represented a high point, and although the music was by no means scarce in 1958, it was on the decline. Perhaps the Hi-Hat’s abrupt alteration of its schedule in 1955, explored here last week, was a harbinger of that.
Grand opening of the fabulous Trinidad Lounge. That’s one weird turtle.
Clubs were making the turn from jazz and standards-based pop to folk, R&B, and rock to attract a new generation of club-goers. No one was more aware of these changes than George Wein. In 1959, Storyville was losing money and Mahogany Hall was open only on weekends. He converted Mahogany Hall to the Ballad Room, a folk club, and closed Storyville in 1960. Change was in the air, and the Trinidad Lounge, a barroom with palm trees painted on the walls, was part of this transition.
What was happening at the Hi-Hat? In the first half of 1955, it was still Boston’s House of Jazz, presenting, among others, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, and Max Roach and Clifford Brown. After the summer shutdown, though, it was almost as if it were a different club.
Roy Hamilton at the Hi-Hat, Nov 14-20, 1955
October started with Mel Torme, followed by the doo-wop group The Stylers, and then pop singer Sunny Gale. Next came guitarist Tiny Grimes and His Rockin’ Highlanders, an R&B outfit who performed in kilts, on an unusual bill with singer Jeri Southern. Then came the venerable R&B band of Steve Gibson and the Red Tops with singer Damita Jo.
Metronome didn’t like it, lamenting that the Hi-Hat was now featuring the likes of Tiny Grimes, a onetime jazz guitarist playing in a band “with funny hats and blue jokes.” The Harvard Crimson, which then followed jazz closely, also complained that the club had abandoned good jazz in favor of singers and R&B bands with semi-jazz overtones.
The mixed-bag schedule might have confused the press, but when Roy Hamilton opened at the Hi-Hat on November 14, the public showed it wasn’t confused at all—everybody wanted in. Roy Hamilton’s one-week engagement at the Hi-Hat set the club’s box office record, or so wrote Daily Record columnist George C. Clarke a few months later.
Fats Waller was in town, headlining the Hot From Harlem Revue opening at the RKO-Boston Theatre on November 6. The Hot From Harlem stage show played Boston annually with its cast of dancers, singers, comedians, and musicians supporting the show’s headlining star.
Take it from Fats—this joint’s jumpin’
We can assume that the ebullient Waller played hits like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and probably introduced a few new songs, too. A party atmosphere likely prevailed among the RKO-Boston crowd, because FDR had been re-elected by a landslide just two days before Fats opened.
But Hot From Harlem isn’t my reason for checking in with Mr. Waller today. I’m interested in the Theatrical Club, on Tremont Street in the Theatre District, and Waller’s role in ending its Jim Crow policy.
William Sebastian Lewis was born in Middleburg, North Carolina, on November 1, 1914, and raised in Philadelphia. That’s where he took up the piano, playing rent parties and little jobs until his family moved to the Boston area in 1932. Sabby joined Tasker Crosson’s Statesmen in 1935, and formed his first band in 1936. He played at Boston’s Savoy Cafe for the first time in 1940, thus beginning his most vital decade in music.
Sabby Lewis and Jerry Heffron, late 1930s
Lewis was a fine pianist from the Earl Hines school, but his playing didn’t make him important. Two other things did. First, of course, he had a great band for a long time, and second, he did much to shape the Boston environment and make it a credible place for jazz.
Lewis hired the best musicians and arrangers in Boston for his orchestra (first a septet, then an octet), and kept its core intact through the decade. The two trumpeters, Eugene Caines and Maceo Bryant (who doubled on trombone), joined Lewis before 1940, as did drummer Joe Booker. Veteran bassist/vocalist Al Morgan arrived in 1942, and critics at the time credited him with bringing the drive to the Lewis band. All were still with Lewis when the band broke up in December 1949. (Caines left the band for a time in 1943, and Cat Anderson replaced him. Booker left twice, in 1943, replaced by Osie Johnson, and 1946, replaced by Eddie Feggan.)
Lulu White’s, the jazz club on Appleton Street in the South End, had a good year in 1979—maybe its best year. And the end of October club owner Chester English went on a serious piano kick. He brought in local stalwart Dave McKenna and matched him with an array of great piano players.
Bill Evans Trio at Lulu White’s, October 30, 1979
There were three pianists in the house on October 25-26, a Thursday-Friday engagement. McKenna shared the bill with the adventurous Joanne Brackeen, not long removed from Stan Getz’s group, and the conservatory-trained Polish pianist Adam Makowicz, who was to spend a considerable amount of time in Boston in the early 1980s.
Then for five nights the following week, October 30 to November 3, McKenna played opposite Bill Evans. McKenna played solo. Evans had his trio, with Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera. It must have been an amazing week, listening to these two craftsmen, so different and both so brilliant.
The Nat “King” Cole Trio rolled into Boston on October 25, 1945, as headliners for the show opening that night at the RKO-Boston Theatre. The Andy Kirk Orchestra was also on the bill, and the comic opening the show (there was always a comic opening the show) was Timmie Rogers.
The King, crowned, with Moore and Miller, 1947
The RKO-Boston was a popular place in town, offering as it did a three- or four-act stage show together with a first-run film, typically one of RKO’s B pictures. During this week, the film was the suspenser Johnny Angel, starring George Raft, Claire Trevor, and Hoagy Carmichael, who as a character named Celestial, sang “Memphis in June” for no apparent reason.
In order to promote its records on the Capitol label, the King Cole Trio (then including the underrated Oscar Moore on guitar and Johnny Miller on bass) was to make an appearance and sign autographs at the O’Byrne DeWitt and Sons Record Shop, located at 51 Warren Street in the heart of Dudley Square, at 5:00 on October 29. It was to be just another promotional appearance on a Monday afternoon before the evening’s first show.
It’s funny how the size of the crowd at a momentous event seems to swell over time. Sports crowds fill facilities well beyond their capacities; I’ve lost track of the number of Bostonians who insist they saw Orr score The Goal or Fisk hit The Home Run. Music fans aren’t immune, either. Seems like half the city was at Boston Garden for the April 1968 James Brown show that stopped a riot.
The Miles Davis Quintet at the 5 O’Clock Club. No cover charge!
This brings me to Boston jazz fans of a certain age, all of whom insist they heard the Miles Davis Quintet between October 24 and November 2, 1955. The Quintet played at the 5 O’Clock, a long and narrow room on Huntington Avenue about a block away from Storyville, where the Westin Hotel is now, during its brief foray into name-band jazz. The management called the club Jazzarama then, “the greatest ‘Rama of them all.”
This blog has visited the 5 O’Clock before, to mark the Boston marriage of beat poetry and jazz. But that was 1958, a few years after Jazzarama.
The Boston Jazz Society was founded in 1973 with the mission, “Keep Jazz Alive.” Its foremost method of doing this was through assisting young musicians, either by sponsoring performances, or through its scholarship fund. Their most famous fundraiser might have been the annual Jazz Barbecue, held every summer for more than 20 years. In October 1978, the Society sweetened its appeal for funds by coupling it with a testimonial dinner and concert to honor Roxbury’s own Roy Haynes, already acknowledged as one of the great drummers of jazz.
Program cover for the Tribute to Roy Haynes, Oct 22, 1978
Earlier installments in this series detailed Teddi King’s rise as a jazz singer in the early 1950s, and her venture into the realm of pop later in that decade. Her career faded in the 1960s, but the improving prospects for interpreters of the American songbook revived it in the 1970s, and brought her into the studio with Dave McKenna on October 20, 1977.
Teddi King at the This Is New sessions, October 1977
Earlier that year, King told The New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett that despite the sequined gowns and Las Vegas stage act and RCA Victor contract, “I was doing pop pap, and I was in musical despair. I didn’t have my lovely jazz music and the freedom it gives. Elvis Presley got bigger and bigger, and rock arrived, and I got very depressed and thought of quitting the business.” King didn’t quit, but she labored through the sixties in near-anonymity.
While working on Nantucket in summer 1970, King contracted lupus, the debilitating disease she battled for the rest of her life. Weakened by illness, she changed her approach to singing. King always liked Billie Holiday for her depth of feeling, but other influences changed over time. As a young band singer, she liked Frances Wayne and Helen Forrest. There was a strong Sarah Vaughan influence in King’s jazz material, and Lena Horne inspired her RCA years. In the seventies, she concentrated on lyrics and telling stories in song, and Mabel Mercer became, as she told Balliett, “her goddess.” (Balliett, an avid King fan, dedicated his 1979 volume of essays, American Singers, to her.)