The Troy Street Observer

July 16: Nat Pierce and His Orchestra, Part 2

Photo of Nat Pierce
Nat Pierce in 1964

Nat Pierce was born in Somerville on July 16, 1925, and we’ll mark the day by concluding our look at his Boston band. Part 1 was here on July 5.

In the spring of 1949, Pierce and most of his bandmates were back in Boston and ready to try again. In May they recorded for the independent Motif label, with one 78 resulting.  “Autumn in New York” featured the alto saxophone of Charlie Mariano, the band’s star soloist, then still creating his own sound under the tutelage of Joe Viola at Schillinger House. The flip side was “Goodbye Mr. Chops,” the recording debut of Teddi King, from nearby Revere. A singer of impeccable phrasing and articulation, she never liked “Chops” because it wasn’t a fair representation of her style of singing. But the band was forging ahead.

Trombonist Mert Goodspeed said that the band elected Pierce their leader because he represented the spirit of the band, a spirit of modernism and experimentation. There was a great sense of camaraderie. All the band’s members were in their twenties and single, most were attending Schillinger House or one of the conservatories, and all were caught up in the modern music of the time. They shared a purpose and believed they were doing something good.

Half of the band members lived in four-dollar rooms in houses at 454 and 458 Mass Ave, next to the Hi-Hat; Pierce even wrote and recorded a song about one, “Pad 458.” (Both buildings are long gone; 454 stood where the rear of the Harriet Tubman House now stands, and 458 stood on its parking lot.) If business was slow, Julie Rosenberg, owner of the Hi-Hat, would let the guys sit and listen all evening for the price of a beer. On hot summer nights, they would sit on the steps of the Mechanics Building and talk about Bartok and Bird and Stravinsky’s writing for Woody Herman.

Pierce, a Basie-inspired pianist and the band’s chief arranger, was of course a constant, but the band’s sound also owed much to its most dedicated members, such as Mariano, trombonist and arranger Sonny Truitt, trumpeter Don Stratton, bassist Frank Gallagher, and drummer Joe MacDonald. All had long careers in music.

The sad thing is that the band starved. Charlie Shribman hired Pierce’s band to work weekends at the Symphony Ballroom in the winter and spring of 1950, but that was their most consistent period of employment. Promoters simply did not take chances on new bands in 1950-51. They wanted sure things, not fresh faces. Pierce was an optimist and he kept plugging away, but even he despaired when the owner of Motif Records vanished into the night with the masters and whatever money the band was due.

After an extended period without work, Pierce had enough. In September 1951 he left Boston, replacing Dave McKenna in the Woody Herman Orchestra, where he remained for five years.

Pierce’s band was crucial to the development of modern jazz in Boston, as was Pierce himself. Only a handful of individuals—Jaki Byard, Charlie Mariano, Herb Pomeroy—had that elusive combination of forward vision, musical strength, and leadership ability that was needed to kick Boston jazz out of its late-forties doldrums.

I had hoped to find some of the Pierce band’s music online, but I’ve had no luck. As a worthy substitute, here’s a video of Woody Herman’s Swinging Herd with Nat on piano, playing “That’s Where It Is,” in 1964. Look for others with Boston ties in this band, too—there are eight! Woody should have called this one the Boston Herd.

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