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).

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July 25, 1948: A Horn for Frankie Newton

Photo of Frankie Newton
Frankie Newton

Trumpeter Frankie Newton moved from New York to Boston at least twice in the late 1940s. In Boston, in 1946-47, he lived in a building at 702 Tremont Street, where the firehouse stands today. Then he was back in New York, where bad luck struck in early summer 1948: an apartment fire destroyed all his belongings. That included his horns, and although Newton played mainly trumpet, he also owned a cornet, a bass trumpet, and perhaps a few other horns, too. All lost. After that he moved back to Boston.

Newton enjoyed great popularity in Boston, and had since his triumphant engagements at the Savoy and Ken Club during World War II. Some of his Boston fans heard the news of the fire and organized a benefit to help out. The ringleaders in this effort were former members of the then-defunct Jazz Society, a volunteer organization that had staged some 40 concerts between spring 1944 and spring 1946. (This group was originally called the Boston Jazz Society, but it had no connection to the group of that name active in the 1970s-1990s.) Richard Schmidt, the society’s former president, announced it was “coming out of retirement” to stage the event, a “Rent Party,” to raise a little cash so Newton could buy a new horn.
First order of business was lining up a room, and Schmidt asked manager Steve Connolly to open the Savoy, closed for the summer, for one evening. Second was lining up a band. Two officers of the Jazz Society, bassist John Field and pianist Ev Schwarz, organized a house group, and lined up musicians like Sabby Lewis and Ruby Braff to sit in. As a special guest for an added draw, and they recruited trumpeter Johnny Windhurst.

The third order of business should have been publicity, but with time short and no budget, little was done. George Clarke gave the event a mention in his Daily Record column, and former Jazz Society member Nat Hentoff surely mentioned it on his WMEX radio program, but there wasn’t time for any serious promotion.

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July 18, 1974: Good Night to the Pioneer Club

The story of the Pioneer Social Club, better known as just the Pioneer Club, has a “once upon a time” air about it, because the  conditions that allowed it to flourish seem so improbable today.

The Pioneer Social Club occupied a former rooming house on Westfield Street, a side street off Tremont near Camden that ran north for a half-block and ended in an alley. Across the street was a transit authority maintenance yard, and according to the City Directory, the Pioneer was the only address on Westfield. It wasn’t the sort of place you walked past. It had to be your destination.

The Pioneer Club was private, and it charged a membership fee, and as such, it could serve liquor after the regular nightclub closing time. But the Pioneer operated as a bar, selling liquor and not just serving it, and for this, the Pioneer needed friends in the city bureaucracy, and it had them.

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July 12, 1956: Tom Wilson Records Sun Ra on Transition

Cover of Jazz By Sun Ra
Jazz By Sun Ra, Transition TRLP-10, released 1957.

Tom Wilson, the man of many firsts in the recording industry, started Transition Records in Cambridge with two goals. First, he wanted to record leading-edge jazz, folk, and classical musicians who were undiscovered or being ignored by the major labels. Second, he wanted to record them live, in the club or concert hall, or before a studio audience. That’s where Wilson saw the best opportunities for capturing  creative, spontaneous performances.

Wilson wasn’t restricting his search for talented musicians to Boston. Transition recorded three albums by the Detroit trumpeter Donald Byrd, including his first, Byrd Jazz, (TRLP-5) in 1955, and his most recent, Byrd Blows on Beacon Hill (TRLP-17), in May. Wilson also recorded trombonist Curtis Fuller and saxophonist Pepper Adams, also from Detroit. And he traveled to Chicago to record Sun Ra.

No major labels were looking at Sun Ra. He had released 45s on his own Saturn label, but no LPs, and the Transition session would be his first for any label other than his own. As it turned out, Transition was his only label besides Saturn in the 1950s.

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