Bob Wilber and Wilbermania in Boston
In January 1949, when Boston’s modern jazz pot was beginning to boil, the most popular jazzman in the clubs represented a different camp entirely. It was a Sidney Bechet disciple named Bob Wilber. Saxophonist and clarinetist Wilber, who died August 4, 2019 at age 91, was a frequent visitor to the Hub between late 1947 and late 1951. Those were critical years for Wilber, learning years, and he treated Boston’s Savoy Cafe as his personal woodshed. In 1949, Wilber was a near-constant presence at the Savoy, at a time when state law said he wasn’t even old enough to buy a beer there.
Bob Wilber studied intensively with Sidney Bechet in 1946-47, living in his home and recording with him. Then Sidney sent his pupil to Steve Connolly’s Savoy Cafe, where Bechet himself played a triumphant engagement in 1945. Wilber’s trio opened in November 1947. His high-school pal Dick Wellstood was on piano and the venerable Kaiser Marshall, himself a former Bostonian, played drums.
Wilber toured France in summer 1948 with Mezz Mezzrow, a trip that included an appearance at the Nice International Jazz Festival. In October he was back at the Savoy, with his best-known 1940s band: Henry Goodwin, trumpet; Jimmy Archey, trombone; Dick Wellstood, piano; Pops Foster, bass; and Tommy Benford, drums. This band packed the Savoy nightly. Connolly tore up their contract and announced they were staying indefinitely.
A Citywide Case of Wilbermania
Boston succumbed to Wilbermania. The Savoy—the House That Sabby Lewis Built—became a Dixieland-only venue. The mainly African-American audience who enjoyed Lewis’s brand of swing-meets-jump drifted away, replaced by a legion of white college-age Dixie enthusiasts. Fans formed a “Bob Wilber Dixieland Jazz Club of Boston.” Then they staged a parade.
Wilber spent the holidays in New York, planning a January return to Boston. Both Down Beat and Record Changer reported on what happened when he arrived. On January 3, Wilber’s fans met his train at the Back Bay station. They loaded Bob’s band into a horse-drawn wagon for an old-fashioned tailgate parade. Accompanied by a police escort, they meandered from the station on Dartmouth street to the Savoy on Mass Ave. More than 200 fans followed the bandwagon in a caravan of taxicabs, while more lined the parade route. They stopped traffic. It was Wilbermania!
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