The Troy Street Observer

“Rhapsody in Black” Pianist Joe Steele Remembered

Joe Steele, Rhapsody in Black pianist and longtime member of Chick Webb’s orchestra,  was born Dec 17, 1899 and died in New York City on February 5, 1964. The Boston-born Steele is another of the forgotten ones of this city’s jazz scene. A 1924 graduate of the New England Conservatory, Steele was in New York by 1926, gigging and recording with the Savoy Bearcats, then the band of banjoist Henri Saporo. He led his own band at the Bamboo Inn 1927-29, counting trombonist Jimmy Archey, trumpeter Wendell Culley, and saxophonist (and fellow Bostonian) Charlie Holmes among the sidemen. In 1929 the Joe Steele Orchestra recorded two sides for Victor.

As a member of trumpeter Pike Davis’s Continental Orchestra, Steele toured with the Rhapsody in Black revue in 1931-32, which Time magazine called  “a symphony in blue notes and black rhythm,” starring Ethel Waters. Finally, in 1932 he joined Chick Webb’s Orchestra, remaining until 1936. It was the musical association for which he was best known. After the Webb band, he dropped out of sight. He never recorded again.

Down Beat reported he was in Atlanta in 1939, running a club and leading the band there, but a member of the Steele family informed me that this was not true. Steele left New York to become a professor of music at Texas College, in Tyler, and he left that position for another professorship, at Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, West Virgina. He eventually returned to New York and became a prominent organist in the city’s churches, but he also found time to play jazz and calypso music.

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February 3, 1946: Max Kaminsky Opens Maxie’s

Trumpeter Max Kaminsky opened his nightclub Maxie’s on Huntington Ave on February 3, only to close it two weeks later.

Max Kaminsky, born in Brockton and raised in Dorchester, was 16 when he started gigging with Artie Karle, and 18 when he met Bix Biederbecke. He worshipped Louis Armstrong. He’d been on the 1936 Tommy Dorsey band and the 1937-38 Artie Shaw band, but he was best known as a Chicago-school hot player, a regular at Nick’s in Greenwich Village, and one of Eddie Condon’s merry men.

In October 1945, Kaminsky and Pee Wee Russell commenced a four-month gig at the Copley Terrace nightclub in Boston, near the corner of Huntington and Stuart—an intersection that hasn’t existed for years. The rest of the group consisted of trombonist Brad Gowans, drummer Buzzy Drootin, pianist Teddy Roy, and bassist John Field. When the Copley Terrace job ended, Kaminsky moved down Huntington to Mass Ave, and opened Maxie’s at 220 Huntington, in the basement of the Minerva Hotel. Albert “Sparky” Tomasetti replaced Gowans, but the rest of the band came along with him.

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Jan 26, 1953: Al Vega Records for Prestige

January 26, 1953 was a good day for Boston pianists: Al Vega recorded for Prestige, and Dick Twardzik opened with Alan Eager at the Hi-Hat.

Al Vega Trio
Al Vega Trio, Prestige LP 152

Prestige Records wanted to capture some of the young modernists working in Boston, so they recorded Al Vega’s Trio, with Jack Lawlor and Jimmy Zitano, at the Ace Recording Studio on Jan. 26, and Charlie Mariano’s group at Ace on the 27th. The Al Vega Trio was released as a 10-inch LP, Prestige 152.

Meanwhile, Lester Young was a last-minute cancellation at the Hi-Hat, and saxophonist Alan Eager was called to replace him. Eager used a Boston rhythm section of Dick Twardzik, then known for his work with Serge Chaloff; drummer Gene Glennon, who worked with Twardzik and Chaloff on Cape Cod in 1951; and Bernie Griggs, the Hi-Hat’s house bassist. Twardzik and Griggs were on Mariano’s session the next day, along with trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, in what may have been his recording debut, and drummer Jimmy Weiner.

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Jan 20, 1953: Ol’ Blue Eyes Opens at Latin Quarter

Frank Sinatra opened for 10 days at the Latin Quarter on January 20, 1953; it was his only Boston nightclub engagement as a single. The Latin Quarter, on Winchester Street, was the top night spot in town, and just the place for Sinatra on his comeback trail. Backed by Larry Green’s band, Sinatra sang his current hit, “Birth of the Blues,” and songs from Porgy and Bess. Sinatra enjoyed his time in Boston, hanging around Storyville, where the Ellington Orchestra was playing, and filling a shift on WORL-AM radio, reading commercials and spinning records. It was during this engagement that Sinatra learned he’d play Maggio in the film From Here to Eternity; he won the acadamy award for best supporting actor for it.

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