An Excerpt from Chapter 4 of the The Boston Jazz Chronicles
The advertisement shown here ran in a Boston newspaper during the 1940s, when the Savoy Cafe was the top jazz room in the city. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of The Boston Jazz Chronicles that describes Sabby Lewis, Frankie Newton, and the Savoy Cafe in 1942. Because of legal restrictions, we cannot duplicate the photos used in the book in this excerpt.
Sabby Lewis, Frankie Newton, and Boston’s Hot Spot of Rhythm
The Savoy was the center of Boston jazz in the 1940s, and Stevens Connolly was the man at the Savoy. He managed the room, bought the liquor, and booked the bands. During the war years, he made the Savoy the most important jazz club in Boston. Boston jazz grew up at the Savoy.
Malcolm Little describes the Savoy in his Autobiography of Malcolm X, and his close friend Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis does likewise in his book, The Other Malcolm. It was in the Savoy where Nat Hentoff learned about the music that would form the core of his writing career, a time he describes in Boston Boy. George Wein, the man who revolutionized the presentation of jazz, tells in Myself Among Others how he worked there first as a piano player and later as music director. It was simply the place to be in Boston in the 1940s.
The Savoy Cafe opened in 1935 at 461 Columbus Avenue. It was a small room, not even big enough for a dance floor, but manager Connolly wanted music anyway, and apparently he didn’t want the bland floor shows that often came with it. Together with his brother Jim, he was able to concentrate on the music and inaugurate the policy that established the Savoy as the jazz center of Boston in the early 1940s. Steve was a bluff, no-nonsense guy, rumored to carry a gun, but as a jazz promoter, he was the right guy with the right room at the right time.
Connolly started 1941 with the Jones Brothers, a trio of harmonizers who played their own instruments and were already attracting attention as an opening act for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Max, Herb, and Clyde Jones were popular locally, smooth enough to star in shows at the Ritz. But Connolly wanted more jazz, and he got more of what he wanted when he hired pianist Sabby Lewis, who advertised his outfit as “the greatest band in New England.”
William Sebastian Lewis was 22 when he organized his first band in 1936, after a short stay in Tasker Crosson’s orchestra. Sabby’s brand of swing—a little Earl Hines, a little Bill Basie—grew steadily in popularity as Lewis worked the Massachusetts Avenue clubs, dance halls like the Roseland-State Ballroom and Egleston Square Gardens, and every kind of social event and dinner dance imaginable. The Savoy job was a big prize and surely some of the other capable bandleaders in town must have sought it. But Connolly picked Lewis, who promoted his band for a time in 1941 as “Sabby Lewis and the Savoy Sultans.”
Sabby’s was the best band in Boston, and one of the reasons for that was the stable core of the band. The normal configuration was eight pieces—three saxophones, two brass, three rhythm. There was often a vocalist. His two brass men had been with him since 1938, trumpeter and writer Gene Caines, and Maceo Bryant, who doubled on trumpet and trombone. Both stayed with Lewis until 1949. Drummer Joe Booker also joined in 1938, and though he left for short stints with other bands, he too remained until 1949. Tenor saxophonist and chief arranger Jerry Heffron, who studied at Boston Conservatory, was in Lewis’s first band in 1936 and remained until he was drafted in 1943. His other saxophonists in 1941-1942 were Elliott “Ricky” Pratt, a talented tenor who died quite young of tuberculosis, and journeyman altoist Jackie Fields, who had been with Coleman Hawkins at the time of the landmark “Body and Soul” recording.
Finally, in 1941 Lewis hired bassist and sometimes vocalist Al Morgan, a veteran of the Cab Calloway and Les Hite orchestras, and certainly the best-known musician in Lewis’s circle. He, too, stayed until 1949—then returned in 1952 for five more years. Morgan’s walking bass stabilized the Lewis band and became a major contributor to its success. The hard-swinging rhythm section of Lewis, Morgan, and Booker could stand up to any in the east, and it was Count Basie himself who listened to the Lewis band at New York’s Famous Door in 1941 and sent Sabby a telegram the next day, saying simply “Rock ‘em, Pops.”
In the summer of 1942, the Lewis band won a listener contest sponsored by the F.W. Fitch Company, a maker of hair care products and a national sponsor of radio programming, to select a Boston-area band for its popular Bandwagon program on NBC. Bandwagon was then heard on more than 120 stations on the NBC network, so the contest winner would be playing for an audience numbered in the millions. The Fitch broadcast aired from the Statler Hotel’s Terrace Room on Park Square, where, coincidentally, the resident orchestra was that of the contest runner-up, trumpeter and singer Jack Edwards. A few local bandleaders groused about a black band winning the contest, but that was not of interest to the Fitch people. The best band won their contest, and that’s the band they wanted on their program. We can assume the Lewis band wailed at the Statler that night, but we don’t know how they sounded. No air check or broadcast recording has ever surfaced.
Our man Frazier was a Lewis enthusiast and urged his readers to vote for Lewis in that Fitch contest. He liked the “little big band” aspect of the Lewis Orchestra; the previous April, he wrote in “Sweet and Low-Down:”
The seven pieces—piano, bass, drums, two reeds, two brass—accomplish wonders. The voicings are so expert that there are moments when the seven men sound like 13 or 14. And by that I don’t mean they’re loud and blary, and strictly for the jazzers, but that they somehow manage to achieve the depth and resonance of a good small band.
Lewis advertised his band as the Fitch Band Wagon Orchestra thereafter.
Sabby Lewis recalled the night when Steve Connolly’s bartending brother Jim tried to silence Benny Goodman. Goodman dropped by twice to catch the band in July 1942 when he played the Metropolitan Theatre:
We started playing some things that we knew he’d like, “One O’Clock Jump,” things like that, and it got to be a little too much for him. He just took his coat off and sat in with us. He stopped all the action right away. Everybody’s mouths dropped open, and they listened. It went on for about an hour, and I’ll never forget, the bartender, Jim Connolly, who was the brother of the manager of the Savoy, Steve Connolly, said, “Get that bum down out of there. We’re not selling any booze.” At the time, he didn’t know it was Goodman.
Goodman was effusive in his praise of the Lewis band, telling George Frazier that he was deeply moved by what he heard. “Pretty good? It’s more than that. It’s a great band, one of the greatest bands I’ve heard in a long time.” Will Roland, Goodman’s manager, heard Lewis as well, and said of the Savoy that “it jumps every minute.”
Lewis was back in New York in 1944 for a lengthy engagement at the Club Zanzibar, which in addition garnered the group a regular spot on WOR radio.
Unfortunately, the recording ban of 1942–1944 cost Lewis a contract with Decca, and the sound of one of his finest bands is lost to time.
Sabby Lewis was a home-grown star, but the stature of the Savoy grew with the arrival of trumpeter Frankie Newton in January 1942. Both Newton and his trombonist, Vic Dickenson, became favorites in Boston.
Newton at the age of 36 was well-established in 1942. His career reached back into the late 1920s, with the bands of Cecil Scott and Charlie Johnson, and he played on Bessie Smith’s final recording session. In the 1930s, he worked with Charlie Barnet, Teddy Hill, and John Kirby. He recorded with the Port of Harlem Jazzmen, and with Billie Holiday on her recording of “Strange Fruit.” Newton was probably at his very best when he came to Boston in 1942, playing lost to us because of the recording ban. Nonetheless, his spare, expressive playing style—now fiery and exuberant, now muted and introspective—marked Newton as a star, and with his long residences at the Savoy, Vanity Fair, and Ken Club in 1942–1943, one of the first real stars to settle in Boston for an extended stay. Newton’s presence added a legitimacy to the Boston scene that had been lacking. Good musicians left Boston. Newton reversed that trend.
As Newton continued at the Savoy into February, his band was boosted by George Frazier, who wrote in the Herald
Frankie Newton’s band at the Savoy on Columbus Avenue is far and away the most exciting small group to play Boston within at least the past ten years. Newton is one of the more distinguished trumpet players around today and his performance each night is in itself enough inducement for you to drop by the Savoy. He’s not a powerhouse trumpeter... but a musician who plays subtly and exquisitely.
It’s Jazz, Jazz, Jazz every minute they’re on the stand. You’re missing something authentic and heartfelt if you fail to hear them. It isn’t arranged jazz, but collective improvisation. Collective improvisation can be described in a great many ways. It is gimme the ball and the h--- with the signals. It is the trumpet, the trombone, and the two saxes fooling around with the melodic line and building something lovely and moving while the rhythm section gives out with the good time. It is a lot of things but it is always Jazz.
Frazier added that in skill Newton was second only to Louis Armstrong among the active trumpet players.
Lewis and Newton traded off at the Savoy for the rest of the year. Lewis was there when the bottom fell out of Boston nightlife in November 1942.