Feb 27, 1937: City Bureaucrats Hit “Lawless Nightclubs”
It was page one news in the Boston Post: “Lawless Nightclubs Doomed by New Rules”! In the first major push to “clean up nightlife” since repeal of the Volstead Act, Police Commissioner Joseph F. Timilty (no angel, that one), the Boston Licensing Board, and the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission mandated strict club closing times and an end to after-hours liquor sales. And wouldn’t you know it, the bureaucracy found a jazz club to serve as whipping boy.
In early 1937, there were two nightclubs at Mass Ave and Columbus featuring jazz prominently in their entertainment mix: the Royal Palms at 410 Mass Ave, and Little Harlem at 428 Mass Ave. Both were owned by whites, hired black performers, and entertained racially mixed audiences.
Little Harlem was the hotter spot, with one of the top bands in town, the Little Harlem Orchestra led by Dean Earl and including the violinist and saxophonist Ray Perry, bassist Slam Stewart, and drummer Dave Chestnut. It also had a colorful owner, Eddie Levine, who just had trouble remembering to close his club at the appointed hour of 1 a.m. With repeated closing violations on its record (three in the first eight days of 1937 alone), Little Harlem was just the kind of “all-night, liquor-selling type” of club that the licensing board was after. The new regulations stationed police on the premises of problem clubs to ensure prompt shutdown, and also explicitly forbade barricading the door, a common tactic held over from speakeasy days, used to stall the police until any potentially incriminating evidence was poured down the sink.
The bureaucracy won out in the end, as it often does. Levine’s license was revoked, and Little Harlem shut down in the spring. The successor club, Little Dixie, was in operation by August 1937.
All this puts me in a mind to listen to “After Hours,” the blues penned by Avery Parrish. You know this tune—Mai Cramer used it as her theme song on her long-running program on WGBH, “Blues After Hours.” Mai died on Feb 25, 2002, and hers is another one of those unforgettable Boston radio voices.
Here are two versions of “After Hours.” First is the Erskine Hawkins original played on “Blues After Hours.”
The second is a more recent version as played by local blues institution David Maxwell: