The Troy Street Observer

May 22, 1955: The Legendary Latin Quarter Closes

On May 22, 1955, an era in Boston nightlife ended when the Latin Quarter closed its doors for the last time.

The Latin Quarter (46 Winchester Street) packed a lot of nightlife history into its 16-plus years, none more fascinating than its last chapter, from October 1952 to May 1955. That was the era of Rocco “Rocky” Palladino, a character with a cloudy past, a stable of race horses, and a history of run-ins with the Boston Licensing Board.

Photo of Christine Jorgensen
Christine Jorgensen: The Boston Licensing Board had it in for her

The BLB forced Palladino to close another of his clubs, the College Inn, for putting female impersonators on stage in 1952. That was illegal in Boston, and had been since 1948. I’m sure the BLB was less than pleased to see Palladino back in action at the Latin Quarter.

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May 21, 1950: Boston’s First Jazz Festival

Boston’s first outdoor jazz festival, a five-set event on the Boston Common, took place as part of the Mid-Century Boston Jubilee.

In May 1950, the City of Boston held a four-day extravaganza, the Mid-Century Boston Jubilee, to prove to the nation, and perhaps to itself, that the city still had a pulse. Every facet of the local economy was tanking, and Mayor John Hynes and the business community needed to talk up the city’s prospects for job growth, prosperity… the usual.

The captains of industry bankrolling the Jubilee knew that a good party needs plenty of music, and the citizens of the olde towne sampled everything from the Gillette Safety Razor Company Glee Club to the Boston English High School Band to Louie Prima’s big band. The Jubilee’s Big Deal was the Saturday night baked bean supper, served with ham and brown bread on long banquet tables set up on the Common. “10,000 Sit Down to Baked Beans on Common; 30,000 Turned Away” said the Globe’s headline the next day. Al Bandera’s Garden City Band played through dinner, and Burl Ives strolled through the crowd, reprising his popular hit, “Gimme Cracked Corn and I Don’t Care” to great applause.

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May 20, 2001: A Block Party on Chick Corea Way

On May 20, 2001, the City of Chelsea honored Chick Corea, the home town boy made good, by renaming the block of Everett Avenue between Arlington and Walnut Streets to Chick Corea Way. Chick was there, with family and friends…but I don’t know if he played. I mean, he must have played, right? They were naming a street after him.

Photo of Chick Corea
The Chick Corea Way

Pianist, composer, and bandleader Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea was born in Chelsea on June 12, 1941, and his trumpet-playing father sat him down at the piano at about age five. Corea always knew he was going to be a musician. While still in high school, he gigged with trumpeter Phil Edmunds, and he had his own groups—a sextet where he first tried his hand at arranging, and a trio with drummer Tony Williams, who was even younger, and Don Alias, then playing bass. His second trio, with drummer Joe Locatelli, played at the Stable. Though underaged, that’s where Corea spent his free time, picking up gigs and soaking up the wisdom of Herb Pomeroy and his men.

Corea entered Columbia University in 1959 but dropped out after a few months, then tried the Juilliard School and wasn’t happy there either. Back in Boston with Al Natale’s band at the Mayfair, Corea worked with his first big name, Cab Calloway. Then he went on the road in the early 1960s, working across the jazz spectrum, from Billy May to Mongo Santamaria to Blue Mitchell to Sarah Vaughan. In March 1968 he made the classic trio recording of Now He Sings, Now He Sobs with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes, and Corea jumped to the front of the line among the young piano players.

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May 19, 1985: Tribute to John McIlvaine

Photo of Mae Arnette
Mae Arnette, late 1950s: she organized the benefit for her uncle

The life of concert promoter and nightclub operator John McIlvaine was celebrated by an overflow crowd at the Taurus Club.

John McIlvaine had been on the Boston scene for a long time, from at least 1943, when as president of the Younger Citizens’ Co-ordinating Committee, he staged concerts by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Lionel Hampton to raise money for war relief. After the war, he continued promoting concerts, but also started managing musicians and entertainers. Then in the fifties he started managing nightclubs, including Sugar Hill, in Bay Village. It was there that he introduced Boston to his niece, Mae Arnette, in 1952.

The headliner in the Sugar Hill show became ill and McIlvaine needed a replacement in a hurry. He called Arnette, who had recently won an Amateur Hour contest at the Apollo Theatre and was singing at Murrain’s nightclub in Harlem. She took the Sugar Hill job, fell in love with Boston, and moved here.

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May 18, 1951: Duke’s Mercer Session

Duke Ellington recorded four sides in Boston for the Mercer label on May 18, 1951. The question is, where did the Mercer session take place?

Mercer was a short-lived record label financed by Duke Ellington and run by namesake Mercer Ellington and Leonard Feather. It recorded small-group sessions by Ellington sidemen, sometimes including Duke himself, between February 1950 and July 1951. The Boston session was the only occasion on which the label recorded outside of New York.

Mercer Records label
A Mercer Records LP, with tunes from the Boston session. It has Strayhorn’s name, but it’s Ellington playing

This small group was called the Coronets, and it was a unique session in the realm of Ellingtonia. This configuration of the Coronets was a septet with the trombones of Quentin Jackson, Britt Woodman, and Juan Tizol up front with Willie Smith’s alto saxophone, and Ellington, Wendell Marshall, and Louis Bellson in the rhythm section. Billy Strayhorn replaced Duke on one number. (The Ellingtonia site includes Jimmy Hamilton and Russell Procope on the session. Other sources including the Duke Ellington Panorama disagree, as do my own ears.).

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May 17, 1947: Big Bands Out at the RKO Boston Theatre

On May 17, 1947, the RKO Boston Theatre announced it would discontinue stage shows for the summer, virtually ending the big band era in Boston.

The economics of the entertainment business were changing fast in postwar America, and the most visible sign of that change in Boston was at the RKO Boston Theatre at 614 Washington Street.

The RKO chain owned of a pair of theaters on Washington Street, a block apart. The Keith (now the Opera House) showed mainly movies after the Boston, a big theater seating about 3,200, opened in 1925. The formula at the Boston was “stage-and-screen.” The A movies ran at the Keith, while B movies played at the Boston, along with the live entertainment. Sometimes that was vaudeville, sometimes a big-cast stage show like Cab Calloway’s Cotton Club Revue, and when swing became the thing, shows headlined by big bands. These became the norm a bit later than you might expect, finally dominating the schedule in late 1941, and they continued to dominate until early 1947.

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May 16, 1942: Basie Awarded “Doctor of Swingology”

Count Basie received an honorary degree from Harvard on May 16, 1942, but not one you might expect. Just about the time America pitched headlong into war, Count Basie had two out-of-the-ordinary events in Boston, one in October 1941 and the other in May 1942. They involved a curious clutch of Bay Staters: a journalist, a socialite, and Basie’s road manager, Milt Ebbins, a master at creating press-worthy events.

Photo of Count Basie
William Basie, Doctor of Swingology

In May 1942, Count Basie visited Harvard to receive an honorary degree, but not one bestowed by university itself. No, this presentation was entirely the work of a group of jazz-loving Yardlings acting on their own: They presented the Count with the “Doctor of Swingology” degree.

I’m not sure what brought Basie to the Boston area in early May, because he wasn’t scheduled at any of the regular venues. Perhaps he was playing a dance at Harvard itself. Nonetheless, Ebbins delivered Basie to Winthrop House on May 4 to receive his doctorate (the event made the press weeks later).

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May 14, 1951: A Homecoming for Johnny Hodges

The Johnny Hodges All-Stars opened for a week at Storyville on May 14, 1951, and it was a big step forward for both the star and the club.

Saxophonist Johnny Hodges, born in Cambridge, raised in Boston’s South End, inspired by Bechet, and a member of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra since early 1928, finally decided to go out on his own in early 1951. After 23 years with Ellington, he figured it was time, a move encouraged by the impresario Norman Granz.

Photo of Johnny Hodges
He wasn’t always an Ellingtonian: Johnny Hodges

The Boston date at Storyville was one of the first outside of New York for the All-Stars, a group formed shortly after Hodges declared his independence. In the band were the Count Basie veteran, trumpeter Emmett Berry, and five others with ties to the Ellington. Trombonist Lawrence Brown and drummer Sonny Greer left Ellington with Hodges. Tenor saxophonist Al Sears and bassist Lloyd Trotman had played with Ellington in the 1940s. Finally, pianist Billy Strayhorn was still Ellington’s closest musical collaborator.

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May 13, 1963: Joe Bucci Is Wild About Basie

Joe Bucci’s Capitol LP, Wild About Basie!, garnered a 3-star review in Down Beat. Organist Bucci (1927-2008), from Malden, worked in a duo with drummer Joe Riddick in the early 1960s. His work was marked by its relentless bass lines, which he played on the foot pedals exclusively.

Cover of Wild About Basie!
Joe Bucci’s Wild About Basie!, Capitol ST-1840

Organist (and accordionist) Joe Bucci wasn’t the only guy playing the Hammond B-3 in Boston in the 1960s. Hillary Rose, Fingers Pearson, Hopeton Johnson, Walter Radcliffe, and others were playing it in the South End clubs from the late fifties on.

Bucci’s big break came at the Agganis Arena in Lynn, on Aug 21, 1961, Count Basie’s 57th birthday—and Bucci and Riddick opened the show for Basie Band. The Count was impressed, and he booked Bucci for a month in his New York club. He also put in some good words in the right places, and Bucci was on the program at Newport in 1962, and recording for Capitol. The result was Wild About Basie!, an all-Basie program of favorites old and new, including “Splanky,” “Shiny Stockings,” and “Woodside.”

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