March, 1944: Sabby Lewis at Club Zanzibar
In late 1943, Sabby Lewis, the most important figure in Boston jazz in the forties, was looking to break out of the New England region, and he turned to Charlie Shribman for help. Shribman, the Boston-based kingmaker of the big band era, promptly booked Lewis for 16 weeks at New York’s Club Zanzibar (West 49th and Broadway) beginning in January 1944. Lewis had played in New York clubs before, at Mr. Kelly’s and the Famous Door in 1942, but the Club Zanzibar job not only ran for four months, it also came with radio time. On either two or three nights per week (accounts differ), the Lewis band was broadcasting over WOR.
The regular Lewis ensemble in 1944 was the septet: Ricky Pratt, tenor; Jerry Heffron, tenor and arranger; probably Ray Perry, alto and violin; Gene Caines, trumpet; Maceo Bryant, trumpet and trombone; Al Morgan, bass; Joe Booker, drums, and Lewis on piano. Lewis, however, expanded his group in New York (the union might have insisted on it). But what expansion! His 1944 New York band included both Freddie Webster and Idrees Sulieman on trumpet, Big Nick Nicholas on tenor, George James on tenor and baritone, and Al Hayes on trombone.
Nicholas deemed the book first-rate. Sabby was buying arrangements—from Tadd Dameron, Don Redman, and the Boston arranger Highland Diggs, among others. It was Diggs who wrote and arranged the Lewis band’s theme song, “Minor Mania,” during the Zanzibar engagement.
Nicholas stayed on the band when it returned to Boston. He studied at the Boston Conservatory while continuing to work with Lewis, and he started giving lessons himself, in a studio above the Savoy nightclub. Nicholas remained in Boston for two years.
The Lewis orchestra recorded in New York in 1944, and the music was released on the Phoenix Jazz LP Boston Bounce in 1975. It turns up regularly in the online listings of used records.