Apr 20, 1959: Lady Day’s Last Visit

Billie Holiday opened her last engagement in Boston on April 20, 1959, at  Storyville. For Holiday, who had not worked in Boston for three-and-a-half years, it was a triumphant return.

Photo of Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday, 1958

I believe Holiday first came to the Hub in August 1937 with Basie’s band, singing at the Ritz Roof. She made history here in March 1938 when she joined the Artie Shaw Orchestra at the Roseland-State Ballroom. The 1940s are dotted with Holiday appearances, but Boston was really reintroduced to her in February 1951, during a ten-day engagement at the Latin Quarter.

Boston in 1951 had the Hi-Hat and Storyville competing for jazz talent. Holiday, who had lost her cabaret card, could not work in the New York clubs, so the Boston situation was to her advantage—between 1951 and 1955, she worked week-long engagements at Storyville five times and at the Hi-Hat four. The last was in October 1955, and although she sang at the North Shore Jazz Festival in Lynn in 1957, she wasn’t seen in Boston again until April 1959. On this visit, her accompanist, Mal Waldron, was joined by bassist Champ Jones and drummer Roy Haynes.

Continue reading

Apr 15, 1981: Michael’s Jazz Club Closes

The days approaching Tax Day have sometimes been troubled ones for Boston’s jazz clubs. Take the Willow, for instance. On March 27, 1997 the Willow Jazz Club in Somerville was padlocked. The owner was in serious legal trouble and the city closed him down.

Photo of James Williams

A Michael’s regular: James Williams in 1979

On April 9, 1978, the fabled Boylston Street clubs, the Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall,  closed. Owner Fred Taylor said he could no longer afford to stay in business.

On April 14, 1960, John McLellan, in his Jazz Scene column in the Boston Traveler, quoted a letter written by Storyville owner George Wein. The club had shut down for five weeks that spring, its first in-season closure, and was to reopen April 11. Wrote Wein: “If Storyville is successful, or even moderately successful, in this six-week period, then we will go ahead with some plans for the fall. If business is as dismal as it has been all winter, then I don’t know what the future of Storyville will be.” There wasn’t enough business. Wein turned out the lights on May 22, and closed his club.

On April 15, 1981, Ed Aronson, owner of Michael’s Jazz Club on Gainsborough Street, turned out his lights for the last time. He was forced out by his new landlord, who had other plans for  the space.

Continue reading

Dean Earl: “The Original Dean”

It’s time to mark a centennial. Everett G. Earl was born on April 10, 1914, in Corona, Queens, and years later he said he couldn’t recall a time when he wasn’t playing the piano. He was mainly self-taught but he had big ears; he grew up in the New York City of James P. Johnson and Willie the Lion, and by age 13 he knew enough stride piano to play at rent parties and YMCA dances.

Photo of Dean Earl

Dean Earl, mid-1950s. Photo New England Jazz Alliance

By age 17 Earl was already on the road, traveling  as far west as St. Louis on the RKO Theatre circuit. During his Boston stops, he stayed at the Railway Club on Yarmouth Street, a combination rooming house and speakeasy, where the jazz was quite good. In 1933, the Railway Club asked Earl to stay on as the resident piano man, and he did—thus becoming one of the first, if not the first, jazz musician to move from New York to Boston rather than the other way around. In 1934 Earl joined Joe Nevils’s Alabama Aces, and after that went to Eddie Levine’s nightclub, Little Harlem, on Mass Ave.

In 1936 Earl organized an eight-piece group to work at Little Harlem. Its members included Ray Perry, doubling on reeds and violin; alto saxist Jackie Fields, who in 1939 would play on the legendary “Body and Soul” recording of Coleman Hawkins; and bassist Slam Stewart, then a student at the Boston Conservatory. “The Boston musicians liked to play with me because I had that New York feel,” Earl later recalled.

Continue reading

Apr 4-5, 1955: Serge Chaloff’s Boston Blow-Up

It was welcome news indeed for lovers of the big sound of the baritone sax: Serge Chaloff was back. “Serge, for years one of music’s more chaotic personalities, has made an about face of late and is again flying right. It is evident in his playing, which…has become a thing of real beauty.” So began Jack Tracy’s Down Beat review (Oct 5, 1955) of Boston Blow-Up!, the recording made by the Serge Chaloff Sextet on April 4-5, 1955.

Cover of Boston Blow-Up!

Boston Blow-Up!, Capitol T-6510, 1955

“Chaotic”…others used harsher words to describe Chaloff. Serge had been a junkie since the mid-forties, and although he played splendid saxophone with Georgie Auld, Woody’s Second Herd, and his own groups in early-fifties Boston, by 1954 he had no room left to run. He voluntarily entered the rehab program at Bridgewater (Mass.) State Hospital to put an end to his years of addiction.

Chaloff emerged from Bridgewater in early 1955, and one of the first to help Chaloff reestablish himself was the disk jockey Bob “The Robin” Martin, who negotiated a recording contract with Capitol Records as part of the “Stan Kenton Presents” series. Later in the year Martin arranged Chaloff’s guest appearance on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show.

Continue reading

The Trio With That “Zephyrous Cognomen”

Come the month of March, all New England is yearning for the warmer southern winds. One year, however, our balmy breeze was a musical one. Metronome magazine, in March 1950, referred to the Soft Winds as the group with the “zephyrous cognomen,” which probably prompted more than one reader to consult the dictionary. But “zephyrous” was an apt word, because the group’s quiet swing was mild and breezy, and from June 1949 to December 1951, that zephyr soothed Boston. Later, as a duo, the Soft Winds refreshed Boston again, in 1953 and 1955.

Photo of the Soft Winds

The Soft Winds (l-r) Herb Ellis, John Frigo, and Lou Carter

Guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist John Frigo, and pianist Lou Carter formed the postwar rhythm section in the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, but when Dorsey furloughed the band in 1947, they set out on their own as the John Carlis Trio. They modeled themselves after Nat Cole’s group. As the Soft Winds, they arrived in Boston in June 1949. By then Frigo had written his most famous song, “Detour Ahead.”

The Soft Winds were the perfect group for the Darbury Room, an upscale club downstairs at 271 Dartmouth Street, just off Newbury Street. They had that quiet, just-right swing: “We had that Shearing sound before Shearing did!” said Frigo.

For six months in 1949-50, the Soft Winds shared the stage with a series of revues honoring the great composers of the American songbook. The vocalists were led by longtime Boston pop singer Guy Guarino and included Alice O’Leary and Bill Conlan, but the standout was a Broadway-bound singer at the beginning of her career, Barbara Cook.

Continue reading

Mar 16, 1984: The New Artie Shaw Orchestra at the Park Plaza

Opening night of the 13th Boston Globe Jazz Festival featured the return of one of the most newsworthy figures in the music’s history. The new Artie Shaw Orchestra, under the direction of Dick Johnson, made its Boston debut at the Imperial Ballroom of the Park Plaza Hotel. About 1,500 dancers, nostalgists, and the just plain curious turned out for it.

Photo of Dick Johnson and Artie Shaw

Dick Johnson and Artie Shaw, 1984. Photo Donna Paul.

Shaw himself was on a Boston bandstand for the first time since 1953 to emcee and conduct while Johnson played his parts on “’S Wonderful,” “Back Bay Shuffle,” “Stardust,” and more. “We recorded “Stardust” in one take,” said Shaw. “I’d like to see Fleetwood Mac match that.” The crowd loved it.

Artie Shaw—articulate, opinionated, controversial—was back in the news.

Continue reading

Mar 13, 1950: “The High Priest of Bebop” at the Hi-Hat

Thelonius Monk first worked in Boston with Coleman Hawkins at the Savoy, in March 1944. Six years later he returned to Boston, this time as the headliner, for a weeklong stay at the Hi-Hat, opening on March 13.

Monk by Swierzy

Thelonius Monk by Waldemar Swierzy, 1984

George Clarke, of the Daily Record, mentioned that Monk was in town in his March 18 column. He reported that “If you want to see what a real be-bopper looks like, take a run out to the Hi-Hat where, at the moment, one Thelonius Monk, who calls himself “the high priest of bebop,” is holding forth, be-bop hat, horn-rimmed glasses, tiny goatee, and all…. Thelonius—and he swears that’s his real name—claims to antedate Dizzy Gillespie and all other exponents of musical double-talk, saying he was bopping, or maybe beeping, way back in 1932.”

Yes, Clarke was insulting, but it doesn’t do much good to complain about a columnist’s ignorance 65 years after the fact. He was, most likely, operating in the “bebop-as-gimmick” fog common in mainstream media at the time; perhaps he even considered as legitimate the greeting exchanged by Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Carter in pages of Life magazine in October 1948. And Clarke was a newspaperman of an earlier time, who loved the Harlemania bands of Ellington and Calloway and never had much use for modern jazz.

Continue reading

Mar 5, 1974: A Memorial Concert for Lennie Johnson

“Nobody in the capacity house at John Hancock Hall could see him, of course, but you can wager your paycheck that Lennie Johnson was sitting in last night for that all-star gig they threw in his memory.”

Photo of Lennie Johnson and Herb Pomeroy-1970

Lennie Johnson and Herb Pomeroy, 1970. Photo Berklee College of Music

So began Ernie Santosuosso’s review in the Boston Globe on March 6, 1974, the morning after the concert.

Johnson had been an instructor at Berklee for about five years at the time of his death in October 1973, and Berklee sponsored the concert, the biggest of the 1973-74 school year, and colleagues galore turned out to participate. Berklee had no large hall of its own (the Berklee Performance Center did not open until 1976), so whenever the school needed an auditorium, it rented the 1,100-seat John Hancock Hall.

On this night, they needed every seat. Concert organizer Andy McGhee made sure there would be enough great music to draw a crowd—and raise money for the new Berklee scholarship created in Johnson’s name.

The guests of honor were Clark Terry and Jaki Byard, both old friends and bandmates of Johnson. And there was a sizable contingent of Berklee faculty, beginning with McGhee but also including Gary Burton, Steve Swallow, Alan Dawson, and John LaPorta.

Santosuosso mentioned a few of the more notable tunes. Herb Pomeroy, backed by Ray Santisi, John Neves, and Joe Hunt, played a delicate blues on “Why Are You Blue,” a song Gary McFarland wrote for Lennie in the days of the Pomeroy Orchestra, when Johnson played lead trumpet and McFarland was part of the band’s brilliant team of arrangers.

Phil Wilson played a sly “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” Jaki Byard came over from the New England Conservatory to play solo variations on the theme of Cole Porter’s “I Love You,” the Berklee College Jazz Ensemble played the old cowboy lament “He’s Gone Away,” and Clark Terry called upon his alter-ego, Mumbles, to remind one and all that “Johnson was a hearty, big bear of a guy, with a laugh like thunder.”

Terry, who worked with Johnson in the bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Quincy Jones, recalled that “We used to refer to Lennie as the ‘Big Daddy of the Trumpet.’ You could always depend on him no matter how rough the going was.” In fact, it was Terry who urged Jones to recruit Johnson for his band in 1959. Terry had long admired Johnson, with whom he shared a modernist viewpoint as well as an abiding respect for the traditions of jazz.

(In my earlier blog entry on Johnson, I noted that I could find no evidence of his time with Ellington. I recently discovered that Johnson took Cat Anderson’s place for about a month in summer 1951. I’m still looking for something of longer duration.)

The Lennie Johnson Memorial Trust raised $6,000 that night, the start of a fund that is still used to help students with financial need to obtain a music education.

I could not find “Why Are You Blue” with a trumpet playing lead, but I found something just as good. Here is McFarland’s tune performed by the MJQ, from their Lonely Woman LP.

February 27: Blues for Tinker’s

Nightclub owner John Tinker wanted to bring live music to Tremont Street in the South End, and he did that, twice. The first time was in the 1960s at Estelle’s, and the second was in the early 1980s at Tinker’s. Both were at 888 Tremont, a building that still stands today, if just barely.

Photo of Estelle's

Estelle’s/Tinker’s, 888 Tremont Street

The music was first-rate, both times, and a parade of the top names in local and national jazz and R&B crossed the stage. But it’s a story that ended tragically. John Tinker’s music ended with his murder on February 27, 1982.

The building at 888 Tremont had housed a dance hall, a speakeasy, and the restaurant called Estelle’s before Tinker and his business partner Frank Williams bought the place in 1964—building, liquor license, and all. It didn’t take them long to add live music.

It was jumping along “the Tremont Strip” in 1965, with jazz and R&B at Estelle’s, Bill Russell’s Slade’s (then as now at 958 Tremont), and Connolly’s, two blocks away at 1184.

Continue reading

Feb 22, 1960: Held Over! Herman Chittison at the Mayfair Lounge

Herman Chittison, a stride-school pianist who played a gorgeous melody, spent close to two years in Boston in 1959-61. Maybe that wasn’t long enough to qualify him as a “Boston jazz musician,” but he certainly made his presence felt in the time he was here.

Photo of Herman Chittison

Herman Chittison in 1950

Chittison arrived in Boston in October 1959, as resident pianist at the Red Garter in the Lenox Hotel, in the room where the City Bar is now. He remained there through January, joined at least part of the time by singer Greta Rae. Then he moved to the Mayfair Lounge, in Bay Village. The melodic Chittison played solo piano in the lounge while name bands played in the main room. After three weeks, the club announced it was holding over Chittison indefinitely.

Chittison’s career started in 1928, with Zack Whyte’s territory band in Ohio, and in the early 1930s in New York, his soft touch found him work as an accompanist to Adelaide Hall and Ethel Waters. He visited Boston for the first time with a traveling show headlined by comic actor Stepin Fetchit. In late 1933 he went to Europe with the Willie Lewis Orchestra, and the following year recorded with Louis Armstrong in Paris. Chittison and trumpeter Bill Coleman left Lewis in 1938, and formed a band that worked extensively in Cairo, and traveled as far east as India.

Continue reading

Jack Lesberg, the Compleat Bassist

Mid-February is a good time to remember the prolific and proficient bassist Jack Lesberg, who was born in Boston on February 14, 1920. Thirty years later, in February 1950, George Frazier, writing in Pageant, named Lesberg to his all-time all-star band, where he shared rhythm section duties with Earl Hines, Charlie Christian, and Gene Krupa. Now, you can take or leave Frazier, but if Lesberg wasn’t worthy of Frazier’s list in 1950, I  don’t know who was.

Photo of Jack Lesberg

Jack Lesberg in the 1940s

Lesberg played his first stringed instrument at age eight. It was his brother’s violin, and young Jack studied violin and viola with Karl Barleben of the Boston Symphony for six years. (His brother, Dave Lester, led a successful commercial band in Boston and Miami in the ‘40s and ‘50s.) He switched to the double bass when he was 17, and went into the nightclubs. He worked with Silvio Scafati’s band, and with Jack Manning and His Cavalier Strings, in the late 1930s. He also sat in at the Theatrical Club with Bobby Hackett, and this led Lesberg to a job with Muggsy Spanier in 1940.

Lesberg was back in Boston in 1942 and playing in Mickey Alpert’s Orchestra at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, a band Frazier once called “excruciating.” He was working on the night of the infamous fire, a story he told many times. Lesberg moved to New York in 1943. There he quickly established himself as a top bassist in the world of “Nicksieland,” or “New York Dixieland,” that stronghold of small group improvisation and a book stocked with “the good old good ones,” but that also included saxophones, guitars and basses instead of banjos and tubas, and drummers who played with swing-band feel. Lesberg had friends from Boston equally at home in that style—Hackett, Max Kaminsky, Brad Gowans, Joe Dixon, and frequent section mate Buzzy Drootin.

Continue reading

The Boston Days of Charlie Bourgeois

Charlie Bourgeois, who was George Wein’s director of public relations and right-hand man for over 60 years, died at the age of 94 on January 26, but I’ve read very little about it.  Bourgeois was active on the Boston jazz scene even before Wein hired him at Storyville in 1951. Two events in particular stand out.

Photo of Pee Wee Russell and Charlie Bourgeois

Pee Wee Russell and Charlie Bourgeois at Newport, sometime in the sixties. Photo Newport Jazz Festival.

The first was his staging of “a recital of contemporary music” at the John Hancock Hall in October 1949 with the trio of Mary Lou Williams and the sextet of Lennie Tristano, which included Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. It was Tristano’s first Boston appearance, and the concert program attempted to prepare the listeners for Tristano’s way-out music: “Tristano seeks optimum conditions and an intelligent audience for the performance of his music. It all may seem strange to the untrained ear but the music concepts that Tristano conveys may be assimilated by all who are eager to hear. Contemplation is required in the appreciation of any art.” Clearly, Bourgeois wasn’t sure that the Boston audience was as ready for the sound of modern jazz as he himself was.

Continue reading

January 1958: Life Is a Many Splendored Gig for the Pomeroy Band

In late January 1958, after what seemed to Bostonians like an interminable wait, Roulette Records released Life Is a Many Splendored Gig, the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra’s first album (Roulette R-52001), and January 30 was the date the local press first wrote about it.

Photo of Herb Pomeroy

Herb Pomeroy, 1956. Photo Berklee College of Music

John McLellan, in his twice-weekly Jazz Scene column in the Boston Traveler (oh, to have the luxury of a twice-weekly jazz column in a daily paper), summed it up in six words: “the whole album is a gas.”

In The Boston Jazz Chronicles, I wrote about this band being the high-water mark of Boston jazz in the 1950s, and this recording is the proof of it. The band swings and the soloists (especially Joe Gordon) are standouts, but I give extra credit to the arrangers—Pomeroy’s band had the reputation of a writers’ band, and they’re in evidence here. Band members Everett Longstreth and Boots Mussulli contributed two arrangements each, as did Pomeroy himself, and Jaki Byard and Ray Santisi each wrote one. Byard’s “Aluminum Baby” became the band’s most requested tune. Bob Freedman, who replaced Byard in the saxophone section in September 1957, also contributed a chart.

Continue reading

Jan 27, 1953: Mariano’s Boston All Stars Record for Prestige

If you liked modern jazz, and you were in Boston in the early 1950s, Charlie Mariano was your man. You don’t have to take my word for it. When I interviewed Ray Santisi for The Boston Jazz Chronicles, he said Mariano was the best of the town’s modern alto players, no question. So did Herb Pomeroy in his interview. And so did Dick Johnson in his, and Johnson went on to say Mariano was the best ballad player he ever knew.

Cover of Prestige LP 153

Charlie Mariano and the Boston All Stars, Prestige LP 153

You can judge for yourself, on a recording made on this day, 61 years ago.

Charlie Mariano is no stranger to this blog, of cours. He was the star soloist with the Nat Pierce Orchestra, and he was part of Boston’s first jazz festival with his band, the Boptet. The people at Prestige Records recognized Mariano as one to watch, and he recorded his first album for that label in 1951, a 10-inch LP titled The New Sounds from Boston. And in spring 1953, he’d make a modest proposal to a handful of his sympatico musician buddies: “let’s start a jazz workshop.” The hands-on, learn-by-doing school they started in a Stuart Street office building was eventually integrated into the Berklee School, but that’s getting ahead of the story.

Continue reading

The Second Boston Globe Jazz Festival

In the mid-1950s, the Boston Globe disdained jazz, and in 1955 even openly mocked George Wein’s efforts at Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival. Times change, and in 1966 the Globe hired Wein to produce the first Boston Globe Jazz Festival, at the Boston War Memorial Auditorium (later renamed the Hynes Convention Center).

1967 Boston Globe Jazz Fest program cover

1967 Boston Globe Jazz Festival program cover

It was a success, and Wein was back at it on Jan 20–21, 1967. He brought that old Boston hand, Father Norman O’Connor, along to emcee. Down Beat’s Alan Heineman was there, and though there were high points, his overall reaction was: “lackluster.”

That mood started on Friday night. The Modern Jazz Quartet was “disappointing” and the Dave Brubeck Quartet was “dull.” Even Monk’s Quartet was “pleasant and predictable—to the extent that Monk can ever be called predictable.” By then it was 11:30, and much of the audience departed before the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra played a single note. But their set was sizzling, with superior ensemble blowing and exceptional soloing: “Highlights? Hell, the entire set was a highlight.” But less than half of the capacity crowd remained to hear them.

Continue reading