The Troy Street Observer

Perley Breed’s Department Store Dance Band

In the 1920s, when radio was in its infancy, stations took to broadcasting from department stores, and in Boston, the store was the Shepard Stores on Tremont Street, and the station was WNAC. Both were owned by John Shepard, who may have made his money in retail, but beginning with WNAC’s first broadcast in 1922, he went all-in on radio.

label for Gennett 3059A
Honey I’m in Love With You, Gennett 3059A, 1925

Perley Breed was a 1920s saxophonist, probably born in Danvers, who led a hot dance band in Boston in the mid-twenties, joined a Massachusetts delegation of musicians working in London, returned to Boston, and dropped from sight after 1932. In 1923-25, he was active around Boston on the college circuit with the Shepard Colonial Orchestra. The orchestra played tea time and dinner dances in the store’s Tea Room, some of which Shepard obligingly broadcast. George Frazier recalled the Harvard men from New York could never get over dancing in a department store.

Good musicians passed through Breed’s band, with clarinetist Brad Gowans being the best-known today. There was also trumpeter Warren Hookway, who gave up music when he became a podiatrist, and a pair of songwriting piano men, Sid Reinherz and Curley Mahr. Reinherz recorded four sides for Gennett himself in 1923; he’s remembered in ragtime circles for writing “Boston Trot.” Boston-born Mahr worked mainly as a vocalists’ arranger and accompanist in radio and film into the 1950s.

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April 24, 1952: Jimmy Tyler’s Smart Affairs

Between the late 1940s and early 1970s, Larry Steele’s “Smart Affairs” musical revue was one of the top draws on the black entertainment circuit, aka the chitlin’ circuit. In 1952, “Smart Affairs” was in Boston at Sugar Hill, and Jimmy Tyler was leading the show band.

Photo of Jimmy Tyler
Jimmy “Bottoms Up” Tyler

Sugar Hill was actually a new nightspot in what had been the Mayfair, at 54 Broadway just off Stuart Street.“Smart Affairs” opened on April 24th and ran to May 18th. The 1952 show included comic George Kirby, tap dancer Derby Wilson, vocalists The Four Tunes, and the vaudeville team of Butterbeans and Susie…and Tyler’s orchestra played for all of them.

Jimmy Tyler was no stranger to Boston. He’d been the top soloist in the Sabby Lewis band in the late forties, and when the Lewis band broke up in December 1949, its members regrouped under Tyler’s leadership. Tyler took the band on the road in spring 1950, traveling the eastern seaboard. It isn’t clear when Steele hired Tyler’s band, but fall 1951 is a reasonable guess. “Smart Affairs” would play at its home base, the Club Harlem in Atlantic City, all summer. Then the show would retool and go on tour. After Boston in the spring of 1952, Tyler took the band home to Atlantic City, worked the summer, and parted ways with Steele in September.

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Did Wallflowers Grow at Horticultural Hall?

Wallflowers are generally spotted along the sidelines at dances, but were wallflowers ever spotted at staid Horticultural Hall? The answer is, rarely.

In the peak years of the big band/dance scene, Horticultural Hall had a prime location across the street from Symphony Hall, and a 5,000-square-foot ballroom. It seems inevitable that big bands would find their way into that space, but I can find only one instance when one actually did so.

For whatever reason, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society wasn’t interested in renting its ballroom, but somehow Charlie Shribman convinced the Society to rent it to him for this night. And so the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra played, and presumably the Society collected its rent, and there were no stories of disturbances in the papers to indicate the night ended badly. But there were no more shows. Perhaps the horticulturists thought that the African rhythms might harm the New England flora.

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April 22: Remembering Irving Ashby

Photo of Irving Ashby
Irving Ashby with his Stromberg guitar, about 1950

Guitarist Irving Ashby died on April 22, 1987, in Perris, CA, just a few miles south of San Bernardino, a town mentioned in a tune Ashby played countless times.

Irving Ashby was born in Somerville December 29, 1920 and started with the guitar at age 9. He either did or did not study at the New England Conservatory; some biographies have him attending, while others say he was granted a scholarship but declined it. He was, however, working with pianist Eddie Watson and bassist Ed Plunkett in a trio at Alpini’s in Boston in 1939-40, and that’s where Lionel Hampton heard and hired him. Ashby and Ray Perry went on the Hampton band together in 1940.

Ashby stayed with Hampton until late 1942, when he moved to Los Angeles. He worked in a wartime defense plant and kept his hand in studio work, for example playing in a few of the musical numbers in the 1943 film, Stormy Weather. He also wrote a column, “Guitar & Guitarists,” for Down Beat. After the war he became very active on the LA scene, working with Gerald Wilson, Wardell Gray, Lester Young, and others, as well as Jazz at the Philharmonic.

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April 21, 2007: Welcome Back, Jazz Week!

Jazz Week 2007 logo
Jazz Week 2007

JazzBoston kicked off a renewed and revived Boston Jazz Week, the first in 24 years, on April 21, 2007.

From 1973 to 1983, the Boston’s Jazz Coalition sponsored Jazz Week, an annual springtime burst of energy that found jazz music in venues likely and unlikely, at all times of day, and played by a few name bands and many local ones.

Saxophonist, photographer and activist Arni Cheatham was the Vice President of the Jazz Coalition in 1981, and at the start of Jazz Week that year, he told the Boston Globe’s Ernie Santosuosso: “The overall idea of Boston Jazz Week from the beginning was to show people who live here that, sure, there’s a considerable thrill to hearing a name artist, but there is as much good music happening in a setting with the people who live here and who are as serious about their craft and who are excellent performers as well. We hope to stimulate interest in them and to assist in audience development for these artists.”

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April 20, 1954: Everybody Loves Mambo!

On April 20, 1954, Tito Puente and the Mambo-Rhumba Festival came to Symphony Hall.

In America, 1954 was the Year of Mambo, the year the dance craze peaked in popularity. That was the year of Perry Como’s “Papa Loves Mambo,” Rosemary Cloony’s “Mambo Italiano” (she hated it), Les Brown’s “St. Louis Blues Mambo,” and yes, Duke Ellington’s “Bunny Hop Mambo.” The top bandleaders—Pérez Prado, Machito, Tito Puente—were on television and radio, and in all the magazines. The October 6, 1954 issue of Down Beat included a Tito Puente feature by Nat Hentoff, “The  Mambo!! They Shake A-Plenty With Tito Puente,” and no, Nat didn’t write the headline.

Of course, jazz knew what was happening underneath the commercial fluff, and had for years. There’s no need to recount that story here.

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Apr 19, 1942: First Sunday Jam Session at the Ken Club

What became an institution in Boston jazz, the Sunday afternoon jam session, started in April 1942 at the Ken Club, on the corner of Tremont and Warrenton Streets (a corner that no longer even exists).

Ken Club jam session announcement
A Ken Club jam session

Jam sessions started as informal and private affairs among musicians, and that hasn’t changed. In about 1937, though, the idea of a public jam session took hold, where a small group of musicians played unrehearsed music for an invited audience. The audiences grew, and organizers began charging a modest admission fee to pay the musicians enough to meet the union’s minimum scale. A unique set of circumstances established these sessions in Boston on Sunday afternoons, where they remained for some 25 years.

It was the Ken Club, at 58 Warrenton Street, that started the Sunday sessions. The Ken had all the ingredients. First, they had the talent. The Ken was the home of small-group jazz during the war, and the best groups of the day, such as those of Red Allen and Frankie Newton, worked there. There was an energetic organizer in Bill Ingalls, a DJ on WCOP. It was wartime, and Boston was teeming with sailors looking for entertainment. Finally, most New York union musicians had Sundays off, and the Ken could thus invite top musicians to Boston to host the jam sessions.

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April 18, 1947: Armstrong and Holiday at Symphony Hall

Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, on tour, make a stop at Symphony Hall on April 18, 1947.

My first thought when I learned that Armstrong and Holiday were touring in 1947 with a concert package called “The Birth of the Blues” was that they were promoting their movie, New Orleans, released that year. (They both had roles in the film but they did not star in it; Billie was a singing maid and Louis a bandleader.) My first thought, however, was apparently incorrect.

What was actually happening was Armstrong was touring with his Famous Orchestra (Joe Garland, Big Chief Russell Moore, Arvell Shaw, and a whole lot of musicians I never heard of); that the film had been or was about to be shot; and that Joe Glaser, manager of both Armstrong and Holiday, saw a way to create some buzz for the film by adding Billie to the tour.

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April 17, 1988: Oliver Lake’s Tribute to Eric Dolphy

Oliver Lake concert program
Program for Oliver Lake’s tribute to Dolphy at the Somerville Theater

The Oliver Lake Nonet and Big Band presented a tribute to Eric Dolphy at the Somerville Theatre on April 17, 1988.

While the Jazz Coalition was producing  Jazz All Night and the Jazz Celebrations concert series, it was also using grant money to commission new work. This ambitious 1988 program was an example of that, with Lake-the-composer funded by the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, and Lake-the-performer funded by the New England Foundation for the Arts.

Eric Dolphy, who died in 1964, did not visit Boston too often. There was a notable week at Connolly’s in December 1962, leading a quartet featuring Herbie Hancock. He’s better known, perhaps, through his musical associations with Jaki Byard, Roy Haynes, and Tony Williams.

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April 16, 1938: First Time! Ella Sings a Classic

On April 16, 1938, Ella Fitzgerald, with the Chick Webb band, introduced a new song, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” to the crowd at the Flamingo Room in Boston.

Ad for Levaggi's
Ad for Levaggi’s Flamingo Room, late March 1938

Boston, April 1938: in the ballrooms were Gene Krupa at the Cambridge Hotel Continental, Art Shaw with Billie Holiday at the Roseland-State, and Glenn Miller at the Raymor. In the clubs were Eddie Deas at the Club Congo, the Alabama Aces at Little Dixie, and Chick Webb with Ella Fitzgerald at Levaggi’s. This was a surprising amount of activity. Webb’s band had even been held over, a fact noted by Lillian Johnson in her column “Strictly Jive” in the Afro-American: “Chick and his band, and Ella, of course, will be held over four more weeks, and maybe longer, in Boston, where ordinarily, about the only thing that holds over is winter.”

Jack Levaggi’s Flamingo Room was in the Gardner Hotel, 199 Mass Ave at Norway Street, two blocks from Symphony Hall. Levaggi’s was a high-end nightclub, and whereas the Roseland-State or the Raymor charged 75 cents for admission on the weekends, the Flamingo Room charged $2 and up, sometimes all the way up to $5, which was a lot of money in 1938 (one 1938 dollar equals about $16.50 today). But the bands were good, including Casa Loma, Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, and for a long stretch in 1938, Chick Webb.

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