The Troy Street Observer

July 31, 1949: Jimmie Martin Orchestra at the Rio Casino

Label of Motif M 2003
Mamie Thomas and the Jimmie Martin Orchestra on Motif, 1949

I dedicated a chapter of The Boston Jazz Chronicles to Boston’s two late 1940s big bands, the “white contingent” of Nat Pierce (in the blog on July 5 and July 16) and the “black contingent” of Jimmie Martin.

The bands had much in common—passionate and talented musicians, skilled arrangers, and a decidedly modern outlook. Unfortunately, they also shared a mostly empty schedule, and if the Pierce band only worked a little, the Martin band worked a little less. In what little mention the Martin band merits in the jazz literature, it is often called a rehearsal band.

Some members of Martin’s orchestra became household names, at least in jazz households—Jaki Byard, Joe Gordon, Gigi Gryce, Lennie Johnson, Sam Rivers. Some, while not household names, were quite influential. Trombonist and arranger Hampton Reese was B.B. King’s music director for almost 25 years in the 1950s-1970s, and trumpeter Gil Askey, who had the same role with Diana Ross, was one of the founding fathers of the Motown Sound. Still others were active sidemen on the national scene (Jack Jeffers, Clarence Johnston), or doubled as performers and educators (Andy McGhee, Floogie Williams).

Jimmie Martin arrived in Boston from Florida in 1946 to study at the Boston Conservatory, and organizing his first band (Jimmie Martin’s Nightengales) that same year. He also played piano, composed and  arranged music, and sang like Billy Eckstine. In 1947 he organized a new band, Jimmie Martin and His 17 Exponents of Bebop, which could have been his humorous take on Tasker Crosson’s non-bopping Ten Statesmen. In 1948 he organized the Jimmie Martin Orchestra, disbanded due to lack of work, and reformed in 1949 in time to play the Local 535 Benefit and Ball in April. But the band didn’t last long the second time, either.

There just wasn’t enough work, and a few gigs at the Rio Casino in summer 1949, are among the few engagements I can confirm.

Martin’s Orchestra did last long enough to record on Motif, the Boston-based indie label active in 1949-50. One paired the Martin orchestra with blues singers Mamie Thomas (“Come Play With Me, ” Motif M 2003) and Leroy “Lover” Brown (“Fat Woman,” Motif M 2003A). Here Martin’s is a jump blues band, in keeping with the singers they’re backing. As for their second record on Motif, I’ve never seen or heard it, although I do know there are no singers. One side is “Second Balcony Jump,” while no one remembered what was on the flip side. I’d really like to hear this record.

After his orchestra, Martin worked as a pianist in various small groups around the corner of Mass Ave and Columbus in 1949-50. Then he disappeared. The Martin band veterans I interviewed had various theories regarding what became of him, but no one knew for sure. The last “confirmed sighting” was in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and he was scuffling. Then the trail goes cold.

In  the end, Jimmie Martin was a man of mystery. I’d like to know what happened to him. And I’d really like to hear that “Second Balcony Jump.”

In the meantime, here’s the Billy Eckstine Orchestra with their version of that tune.

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