Author Q & A

With Richard Vacca, author of The Boston Jazz Chronicles:
Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937–1962

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Why The Boston Jazz Chronicles? What got you started?

I wanted to do a project that involved jazz and cultural/social history, but I didn’t start out with the intention of writing a book. I wanted to create a walking tour along the lines of Paul Blair’s SwingStreets tours in New York. A walking tour goes from place to place and relates stories about the people who were associated with those places, so I started with places I knew because they live on through recordings—live at the Hi-Hat, or Storyville, or Southland—and places mentioned in books I’d read, like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Nat Hentoff’s Boston Boy. George Wein’s autobiography, Myself Among Others, had just been published. And I started talking to people with long memories, like Ray Smith of WGBH radio. I assembled a list of places, and then discovered most of them have been demolished. In a few cases, even the streets are gone. Given that there wasn’t much left to see, I abandoned that idea in favor of a tour in book form. I’d write the stories rather than narrate them, and find photographs to show a Boston that no longer exists. The walking tour idea lives on in the book, though, because there’s an emphasis on places, and there’s a series of maps of the entertainment districts that show where all these places were located.

With a hundred years of Boston jazz history to work with,
why focus on 1937 to 1962?

I started with what most interested me, and that was the music made by the generation born in the 1920s who came of age during World War II, and who were mainly responsible for the development of modern jazz after the war. Thus starting in the late 1930s was a practical decision. I needed to go back just far enough to give a context to the years that form the bulk of the story, so I started when swing was king and the big bands were packing the dance halls, and jazz was as close to being America’s popular music as it ever would be.

The material itself told me when to stop—at the advent of the turbulent sixties. Much changed in the early 1960s in the world of Boston jazz. Modern jazz had matured, and so had the generation who made it. Key people moved on, important venues shut down, the “new thing” in jazz was emerging, and popular tastes changed. Beatlemania was right around the corner. The sixties brought physical and cultural changes to Boston and the country, and that is the starting point for a whole different story.

Where does your book fit in the spectrum of jazz literature?

The Boston Jazz Chronicles is one of a number of books that document jazz in cities other than New York and New Orleans. There are good books in print now about the jazz scenes in Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Now Boston gets its turn. Jazz researchers will appreciate this story, because some of its principal characters went on to long careers in jazz, but their early days are often overlooked or under-documented.

When did Boston become a leading jazz city, and what led up to that?

Although jazz had been played in Boston from the music’s earliest decades, the city became a jazz center in the late 1940s and 1950s. Prior to that time, Boston’s jazz scene was small but steady; the city could sustain a jazz scene but not grow it. World War II changed that. Musicians follow the work, and there was work in Boston during the war—it took a lot of musicians to entertain all those soldiers, sailors, and defense workers, and some well-known jazzmen took up residence in Boston then. After the war came the GI Bill, which brought many veterans to Boston to study. They provided the critical mass, joining with Boston’s own musicians to form an active scene. If you’re looking for a tipping point when the scene starts to really grow, it’s the influx of musicians brought by the GI Bill.

Musicians, though the most important component, don’t themselves make a jazz scene. You need journalists, broadcasters, educators, promoters, and presenters. All of these were active in Boston in the late 1940s and 1950s, and among the “non-bandstand” landmarks of the Bostonians were The Sound of Jazz on CBS television, the Newport Jazz Festival, editors-in-chief at Down Beat and Metronomemagazines, and the Berklee College of Music.

In the book’s cover photo, the Storyville club figures prominently.
What’s the story on Storyville?

The cover is a view of Huntington Avenue in Boston, looking toward Copley Square and Trinity Church from the corner of Exeter Street, and shows the canopy over the Storyville’s door. George Wein, who founded the still-popular Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, opened Storyville in 1950. Nat Hentoff picked the name, after the red light district in New Orleans some believe was the birthplace of jazz.

Storyville is important to the Boston jazz story for three reasons. First, it was the showpiece of the indefatigable George Wein himself—at mid century he was a pianist, club owner, artists’ manager, concert promoter, newspaper columnist, disk jockey, talent scout, television producer, university instructor, festival organizer, record company executive. His work defined how jazz is presented, indoors and out, to this day. Second, Storyville set the standard for how a club should be run and how jazz should be presented. Finally, it was a showcase for the best in jazz in the 1950s, a magnet that attracted the music’s top talent to Boston.

The cover does something different. The city jazz books, such as those for Detroit or Kansas City, all show an image of a band or a single musician on a bandstand. The musicians may not be known to you. If you take a marker and black out all the words on the cover, you’re left with an image of some musicians, and they could be… anywhere. I wanted a cover that would, even with the words blacked out, provide a sense of place and time, of Boston in the 1950s.

Tell me about some of the famous jazz musicians from Boston.

First we should clarify whom I consider a “Boston jazz musician.” There are two groups of musicians here, the Boston-area natives, and those who came here to work or study.

I’ll call a musician a “Boston jazz musician” if that person lived and worked here for some part of their professional life and contributed as an active performer, teacher, or mentor. There are numerous well-known jazzmen who were born in Boston and left town while still in their teens. The most famous were Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges, the hall-of-fame saxophonists who were with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for more than 40 years. Justly famous, yes, and Boston born—but I left them out because they spent their entire professional career elsewhere.

On the other hand, most jazz observers would not consider trumpeter Frankie Newton or trombonist Vic Dickenson as Bostonians, but both rented apartments here and spent many years as active members of the Boston jazz community. In my mind, Frankie and Vic are “Boston jazz musicians” more than Harry and Johnny, who just happened to be born here.

OK, that said, who are some of the important Boston jazz musicians?

It is a fact of life that if you spend your career working outside of New York or Los Angeles, the general listening audience might not know your name, but you’ll be known to other musicians and serious fans. That was true during these 25 years, and even with the internet, it’s true now. Here are some of those “musicians’ musicians” and high-impact individuals who spent considerable time, if not all their time, in Boston. In no particular order we have: Sabby Lewis, Frankie Newton, Jaki Byard, Charlie Mariano, Herb Pomeroy, Alan Dawson, Ray Perry, Lloyd Trotman, Joe Gordon, Lennie Johnson, Bobby Hackett, Max Kaminsky, Serge Chaloff, Dick Wetmore, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Dick Twardzik, Gigi Gryce, Rollins Griffith, Bernie Griggs, Dean Earl, Jimmy Tyler, Nat Pierce, Ralph Burns, Sam Rivers, Mal Hallett, Jay Migliori, Al Vega, Ray Santisi, Varty Haroutunian, Leroy Parkins, John Neves, and Jimmy Woode. And three singers: Teddi King, Mae Arnette, and Frances Wayne. And we can count George Wein here, too, because he’s been playing piano with the Newport All-Stars for years.

Was there a “Boston sound”?

Evidence suggests not, and none of the participants made a claim for one. It was good modern jazz, well arranged and well played, and in the spirit of the times. One writer in the mid-1950s called the Boston sound “warm,” jazz at a midpoint between the two leading schools of modern jazz, West Coast cool and the fiery hard bop then dominating New York.

What will people be most surprised by in this book?

That’s hard to say. I think people who know and like jazz will be surprised by the number of well-known people who working in Boston, and the depth of the activity. It was an important scene. People without much exposure to jazz and who are reading with more of an historical interest will be surprised to find out there was a Ballroom District around Symphony Hall, and that at one point there were five jazz clubs near the corner of Mass Ave and Columbus. This might also serve as an introduction to some of the less laudible aspects of our city—that black musicians stayed in rooming houses because they couldn’t stay in the Back Bay hotels, and that female impersonators were banned from Boston stages. It was a different time, and you found a very different scene when you went out on the town then, as compared to now. That’s what will fascinate people.

What surprised you?

You write this kind of history to learn what you don’t know, and the more I dug, the more I learned, and by no means is all of it in the book. I knew there was a “Jazz Priest” named Norman O’Connor, but I had no idea what a fascinating character he was. I’d been told John McLellan was on the radio but I was astonished to learn he wrote 400 columns for the Boston Traveler—imagine a time when there was enough general interest in jazz to enable a daily newspaper to publish two columns a week about jazz music for four years! And I knew vaguely about the whole “banned in Boston” thing, but seeing what even up-and-up businessmen like Wein were up against with the Boston Licensing Board, and public morals crusades, and the blue laws—amazing. Nightlife was so different back when all those sailors were in town.

What frustrated you in preparing the book?

Boston-specific photographs turned out to be very hard to find. I’m still looking for exterior shots of places like the Hi-Hat and the Roseland-State Ballroom. And there’s the whole process of tracking down copyright owners and licensing the images for use, but every author faces that.

A second frustration was people choosing not to be interviewed, including some people who were very important on the local scene. They were all polite to a fault, but for whatever reason they just didn’t want to talk. Maybe they’ll see the book and change their minds—there’s always room in the second edition…

You interviewed about 75 people. Who were the most interesting
or the most enjoyable?

Most people were enthusiastic about the subject and everybody contributed something, but of course some interviews were more enjoyable than others. Some people who started out as interview subjects ended up as friends. My favorite interviews were with the people who remembered much more than the music they were playing, who were aware of the world around them, and had rich memories to share of a Boston lost to time. I hesitate to name names, but of the 17 people who have died since the time of our interviews, the sessions with Eddie Logan, Sam Marcus, Herb Pomeroy, and Sam Rivers stand out.

Any plans to continue the jazz chronology?

The next 25-year chunk is 1963 to 1988, and Boston in the sixties and seventies is a big, big story. What was the role of the jazz musicians and journalists in that story? And is that something readers want to know about? I’m not convinced. If someone did want to do the work, quite a few people from those years are still around town, and the media hadn’t yet splintered into a hundred targeted segments—if you wanted to know what to do this weekend, you checked the Globeor the Phoenix. So having people to interview and a limited amount of media to wade through would make the research phase easier than the one I just finished. Still, there are so many voices to be heard, some of them still quite strident, and many styles of music to represent, everything from the avant garde to smooth jazz. It’s everybody from Lowell Davidson to Dave McKenna, and everywhere from Danny’s Cafe to the DeCordova Museum. But I’d still need to know if the scene in these years was important enough to document, or whether it was just nightlife for a diminishing audience.