The Troy Street Observer

Nov 28: Chaloff, Mariano, and the Boptet

Two of Boston’s finest modern-era saxophonists were born in November, 1923: Charlie Mariano on the 12th, and Serge Chaloff on the 24th. (Well, OK, other local-impact saxophonists born in November include Sam Margolis on the 1st, Andy McGhee on the 3rd, Jay Migliori on the 14th, Boots Mussulli on the 18th, Bob Freedman on the 23rd, and Gigi Gryce on the 28th. We’re talking all-stars here.).

Photo of the Charlie Mariano Boptet
Sonny Truitt, Charlie Mariano, and Serge Chaloff: the Boptet, well chilled

Mariano and Chaloff rubbed shoulders often between 1949 and 1954, and two encounters stand out as significant. One was recorded on April 16, 1949, and thus saved, while the second, a live set played by the Charlie Mariano Boptet on May 21, 1950, is forgotten.

Charlie and Serge were the best known modern jazz players in Boston, but the cast of characters included Nat Pierce ( here and here) in whose orchestra Mariano was the star soloist, and a number of others in that 1948-50 band. There was drummer Joe MacDonald, who with Pierce and Mariano had formed the first trio to play jazz at the Hi-Hat in 1948. Trumpeters Gait Preddy and Don Stratton, trombonist Mert Goodspeed and Sonny Truitt, and bassist Frank Vaccaro were also with Pierce.

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Nov 23, 1979: Showtime Again at Dorchester’s Strand Theatre

Uphams Corner in Dorchester was historically a busy commercial area, located at the intersection of Columbia Ave and Dudley Street, and served by a half-dozen trolley lines. For entertainment, it boasted the 1400-seat Strand Theatre, in its early days a vaudeville house and later a movie palace.

Photo of Strand Theatre
The Strand Theatre in Uphams Corner. It now has a new marquee.

The postwar years were not kind to Uphams Corner, as the trolleys stopped running, people moved out, and businesses closed. The Strand hung on until 1969. Then it went dark and became one more abandoned building in a neighborhood in decline.

In the mid-1970s, some Uphams Corner neighbors battled back, and organized to renovate and reopen the Strand—not as a movie house, but as a performing arts center. Supported almost entirely by government grants, the M. Harriet McCormack Center for the Arts achieved this goal and celebrated with a gala opening on November 23, 1979. The Count Basie Orchestra performed at the inaugural concert.

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Nov 20, 1921: “There Is Nothing Irreligious in Rhythm”

Among the more notable characters on the Boston jazz scene at mid-century was Father Norman J. O’Connor, the “Jazz Priest,” who doubled as a Catholic priest and a nationally recognized authority on jazz. He saw no contradiction between the two, and people generally agreed with him. “Most people accept you in the role you’re doing: as a speaker on a subject they’re interested in,” he told Down Beat, who put him on the cover of the November 14, 1957 issue.

Nov 14 1957 Down Beat cover
Father O’Connor on the cover of Down Beat, Nov 14, 1957. Copyright Maher Publications.

Norman James O’Connor was born in Detroit on November 20, 1921. His mother insisted he study either piano or violin, and Norman took up the piano, which he regretfully gave up when he had no time to practice in college. O’Connor could not remember a time when he wasn’t listening to and studying jazz.

O’Connor was ordained a priest in the Paulist order in 1948 and arrived in Boston in 1951. He  served for ten years as chaplain of the Newman Club at Boston University, where he also taught history and philosophy. (“Students are a delightful, wonderful group of people,” he later told the New York Sunday News. “They have enthusiasm and they are willing to fight for the future.”) His days were busy, but he made time to indulge his passion for jazz at Storyville.

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Nov 14 1955: Hamilton Sets Box Office Record at the Hi-Hat

What was happening at the Hi-Hat? In the first half of 1955, it was still Boston’s House of Jazz, presenting, among others, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, and Max Roach and Clifford Brown. After the summer shutdown, though, it was  almost as if it were a different club.

Ad for Roy Hamilton at Hi-Hat
Roy Hamilton at the Hi-Hat, Nov 14-20, 1955

October started with Mel Torme, followed by the doo-wop group The Stylers, and then pop singer Sunny Gale. Next came guitarist Tiny Grimes and His Rockin’ Highlanders, an R&B outfit who performed in kilts, on an unusual bill with singer Jeri Southern. Then came the venerable R&B band of Steve Gibson and the Red Tops with singer Damita Jo.

Metronome didn’t like it, lamenting that the Hi-Hat was now featuring the likes of Tiny Grimes, a onetime jazz guitarist playing in a band “with funny hats and blue jokes.”  The Harvard Crimson, which then followed jazz closely, also complained that the club had abandoned good jazz in favor of singers and R&B bands with semi-jazz overtones.

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Nov 8, 1936: Waller Says the Joint’s Officially Jumpin’

Fats Waller was in town, headlining the Hot From Harlem Revue opening at the RKO-Boston Theatre on November 6. The Hot From Harlem stage show played Boston annually with its cast of dancers, singers, comedians, and musicians supporting the show’s headlining star.

Photo of Fats Waller
Take it from Fats—this joint’s jumpin’

We can assume that the ebullient Waller played hits like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and probably introduced a few new songs, too. A party atmosphere likely prevailed among the RKO-Boston crowd, because FDR had been re-elected by a landslide just two days before Fats opened.

But Hot From Harlem isn’t my reason for checking in with Mr. Waller today. I’m interested in the Theatrical Club, on Tremont Street in the Theatre District, and Waller’s role in ending its Jim Crow policy.

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Sabby Lewis, Part 1: The War Years

William Sebastian Lewis was born in Middleburg, North Carolina, on November 1, 1914, and raised in Philadelphia. That’s where he took up the piano, playing rent parties and little jobs until his family moved to the Boston area in 1932. Sabby joined Tasker Crosson’s Statesmen in 1935, and formed his first band in 1936. He played at Boston’s Savoy Cafe for the first time in 1940, thus beginning his most vital decade in music.

Photo of Sabby Lewis
Sabby Lewis and Jerry Heffron, late 1930s

Lewis was a fine pianist from the Earl Hines school, but his playing didn’t make him important. Two other things did. First, of course, he had a great band for a long time, and second, he did much to shape the Boston environment and make it a credible place for jazz.

Lewis hired the best musicians and arrangers in Boston for his orchestra (first a septet, then an octet), and kept its core intact through the decade. The two trumpeters, Eugene Caines and Maceo Bryant (who doubled on trombone), joined Lewis before 1940, as did drummer Joe Booker. Veteran bassist/vocalist Al Morgan arrived in 1942, and critics at the time credited him with bringing the drive to the Lewis band. All were still with Lewis when the band broke up in December 1949. (Caines left the band for a time in 1943, and Cat Anderson replaced him. Booker left twice, in 1943, replaced by Osie Johnson, and 1946, replaced by Eddie Feggan.)

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