The Troy Street Observer

September 25: A Terrific Tenor Trio

September 25 is a great day for birthdays of saxophonists with ties to Boston. On September 25, 1923, Sam Rivers was born. In 1935, Roland Alexander was born, and in 1948, the world welcomed Bill Pierce. How’s that for a front line?

Roland Alexander, Sam Rivers, Bill Pierce
Roland Alexander, 1957; Sam Rivers, 1964; Bill Pierce, 1984

Sam Rivers surprised me while I was writing The Boston Jazz Chronicles. I had no idea how much time he had spent in Boston, and how pervasive his influence was during his time here. Rivers, who was born in Enid, Oklahoma in 1923, arrived in Boston in 1947 to study at the Boston Conservatory. He identified himself as a bop musician then, but he played whatever the job required, notably playing R&B with Fat Man Robinson. He was a key member of Jimmie Martin’s big band, and he himself led a significant bop band with Joe Gordon and Gladstone Scott in 1950-51. Rivers transferred to Boston University in 1952 but did not finish his degree, and moved to Florida in 1954.

That wasn’t the end of Sam’s Boston story, though. He moved back in 1958 and became music director at Louie’s Lounge on Washington Street. He also worked with Preston Sandiford and probably did session work at the Ace Recording Studio. In 1959 he started the celebrated quartet with Tony Williams and Hal Galper, which he anchored for four years. Then in late 1960 he joined the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra. “Sam,” said Pomeroy, “was the excitement factor.” He was with Pomeroy for close to two years. Even though Rivers liked Boston, he left again in 1964 because he had exhausted the city’s musical possibilities. The New York lofts awaited.

Rivers met and married Bea, the love of his life, in Boston and wrote the lovely tune “Beatrice” for her. Here is its debut, from Sam’s first Blue Note release, Fuschia Swing Song.

Roland Alexander, who played soprano sax, flute, and piano as well as tenor, was born in Boston in 1935. He studied at the Boston Conservatory and graduated in 1958 with a Bachelor of Music in Composition. His busiest Boston years were the mid-fifties. He worked in Hi Lockhart’s Hi-Hat house band in 1953, with Joey Masters in 1955, and in Alan Dawson’s 1957 house band at Wally’s Paradise. He was also in Richie Lowery’s Boston big band while a student. He was friends with Joe Gordon and the two often worked together. Alexander moved to New York not long after his graduation.

Alexander was a Coltrane disciple from an early age, and in fact recorded with Coltrane in April 1956 in Boston. He was visiting a Transition recording session and the piano player didn’t show up, so Tom Wilson pressed Alexander into service as pianist to record “Trane’s Strain” (Jazz in Transition, TRLP-30).

In 1961, Alexander recorded Pleasure Bent (Prestige New Jazz 8267) with trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and pianist Ronnie Mathews. He didn’t record again as a leader until 1978. In between were many sessions as a sideman, with Eddie Gale, Max Roach, Sam Rivers, Archie Shepp, Barry Harris, and others.  He was living in Brooklyn at the time of his death in 2006.

Here’s a hard-bopping “Dorman Road” from Pleasure Bent.

Bill Pierce was born in Virgina in 1948 and raised in Florida, and his Boston days began with his arrival as a Berklee student in 1968. He studied with Joe Viola, Charlie Mariano, and Andy McGee, but he took time out from his studies to go on the road for six months with Stevie Wonder in the early seventies. Later he played much more popular music while in the house band at the Sugar Shack, a mandatory stop for touring soul groups. He accepted a part-time post on Berklee’s faculty in 1975 and stayed until 1979, when he went with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He stayed with Blakey for  four years, returning to Boston and Berklee in 1983. He became chairman of the Woodwind Department in 1997, where he remains, still committed to teaching.

Happily for us, Pierce’s progress as a player is well documented. He made about eight records with Blakey, and in 1986 he began an eight-year association with Tony Williams, which yielded five more recordings. Away from the ferocious energy of those two drummers, Pierce enjoyed a special musical relationship with pianist James Williams dating back to the late 1970s that resulted in countless memorable performances, one of which was recorded by WGBH radio; just listen to the interplay on “The Way You Look Tonight.” Pierce played on ten Williams recordings over the course of two decades. And of course Pierce made a half-dozen recordings of his own, mostly for the Sunnyside label, starting with William the Conqueror in 1985.

Bill Pierce is under-represented on YouTube, but here are a pair of short solos culled from 1980s performances, the first with Blakey and the second with Tony Williams.



    • Thanks! They all worked with Alan Dawson during their years in Boston, but that’s the only common thread I’ve found so far.

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