The Troy Street Observer

Apr 7: The Jazz Scene of John McLellan

John McLellan, Boston’s one-man jazz media machine in the 1950s, was born in Shanghai, China, on April 7, 1926. For ten years, McLellan was the most prominent jazz advocate in the Boston media, with programs on commercial radio and television, and a column in a daily newspaper. He was a good spokesman for jazz—intelligent but not smug, respectful of  his readers and listeners, and attracted to honest and well-played music from across the entire spectrum of jazz. Nothing irked him as much as fakery and closed-mindedness.

Photo of John McLellan
John McLellan at the WHDH microphone

WHDH radio hired McLellan while he was an engineering student at MIT in 1951. He started with a half-hour program on Sunday evening called The Top Shelf—and the program director told him not to mention “jazz” on the air because it might frighten away the listeners. It didn’t, and despite tepid support  from station management, the show’s popularity grew and McLellan got more air time. The program ended in February 1961. In the mid-fifties, McLellan also broadcast a “live from Storyville” show on Tuesday nights on WHDH for three years.

In August 1957, McLellan began writing a twice-weekly newspaper column, “The Jazz Scene,” for the daily Boston Traveler. “The Jazz Scene” continued until September 1961, some 400 columns in all. I could not have written The Boston Jazz Chronicles without “The Jazz Scene” and its nonstop news, reviews, and interviews. It covered the week-to-week life of the Boston jazz community, from high-school bands to Storyville, for four years. Those columns remain an invaluable record.

McLellan completed his media trifecta on May 5, 1958, when he broadcast the first Jazz Scene show on WHDH-TV. Every two weeks, that station turned the set and crew of its popular Dateline show over to McLellan, who presented his guests in casual conversations and sets of relaxed blowing. He featured Ellington and Armstrong but also local players like Lennie Johnson, Ken McIntyre, and Ray Santisi. He gave up the show in early 1962, and unfortunately no tape survives.

McLellan was busy on other jazz activities as well in the fifties, but after ten years of total immersion, he was ready for a change. As he told me: “I enjoyed the interviews, and the TV shows, and the contact with the great musicians, but I had said everything I had to say, and I was starting to repeat myself. I just decided it was time, so I left broadcasting.”

In a city rich in writing and broadcasting talent, no one has ever quite achieved the level of print and broadcast success that McLellan enjoyed in the 1950s.

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10 responses to “Apr 7: The Jazz Scene of John McLellan”

  1. I spent many, many hours listening to John McLellan’s jazz shows on the radio. But I’m surprised you didn’t bring up the fact that his real name was John Fitch and that he had another completely different career as a science reporter on WGBH-TV in the 1960s. Here’s a link to a story about his “main” career: http://www.cctvcambridge.org/MITScienceReporter

    • Yes, John’s had more experiences than I could fit into a 350-word post… and he got into continuing education for technical professionals after he reported on science… but I could easily do another post on just the jazz activities I omitted here: Teenage Jazz Club, Living History of Jazz presentation with Pomeroy, Newport emcee, dozens of liner notes… These days, the Jazz Journalists Assoc names “Jazz Heroes” in communities across the country. If this award had existed in the fifties, McLellan would have received one without a doubt.

      • I figured it was probably for lack of space and time that you didn’t have his complete bio.
        As far as your JJA Jazz Heroes comment, I agree completely. And though he just turned 87, it’s not too late; might be a nice gesture if he was at least nominated for one while he’s still around to enjoy it.

  2. I’m John’s kid brother, and as you can see, he STOLE my middle name! John is a man of many talents besides those given above. We did a series of educational film loops together on topics of interest to beginners in chemistry (I have a Ph.D. in chemistry). He created a company, Kalmia, to market — successfully — the films, that were a marvelous help to beginning students. Then he became Fitch Family genealogist, writing four volumes that won at least one award for their high quality, and which have been of great value to me in writing my memoirs. Speaking of which, John is now completing his autobiography, starting with life in Shanghai. He’s a really interesting person, and I’m proud to be his bro!

    • John’s had a number of careers aside from the one that’s relevant to this blog. I’m looking forward to that autobiography myself. Thanks for the note–

      • Hi Dick:
        Thank you for including me in your daily postings. I don’t check every day, but when I do, I go back to where I left off and read every entry. I think this is a wonderful service you provide.
        It was a pleasant surprise to find you’d posted something about me on my 87th birthday. It has been a rewarding life. Even after 31 years of retirement from MIT, I seem to be as busy as ever. As my kid brother (only 85) pointed out, I’m nearing completion of an autobiography. I’ll make sure you’re one of the first to receive a copy. Thanks again.
        John

        • John, thanks for the kind words and I look forward to the completed autobiography. And believe me, after writing these blog posts for four months, I tip my hat to you for doing this kind of writing for four years!

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