The Troy Street Observer

March 10, 1959: Four-Alarm Fire Destroys Hi-Hat

Boston Herald readers awoke to see an EXTRA! at the top of page 1, and the news was bad. “A stubborn four-alarm fire swept the Hi-Hat Cafe at 576 Columbus Ave., South End, at 3:00. The four story brick structure was in flames from cellar to garret, although firefighters had been battling the smoky blaze for a half hour when the fourth alarm was sounded.”

Sabby Lewis at the Hi-Hat
Sabby Lewis at the Hi-Hat

The afternoon Traveler told the whole depressing story. A thousand residents fled nearby buildings in sub-freezing temperatures while the fire burned out of control for two hours. Ice, snow, and thick smoke combined to produce a dense smog, making firefighting all the more difficult. The building was a total loss, and the rooming house behind it rendered uninhabitable. Streets were blocked for hours. What remained standing was pulled down days later as a safety hazard. The Hi-Hat was history.

The Hi-Hat was one of Boston’s most important clubs, from the time it converted from a whites-only dine-and-dance place into an integrated nightclub with a jazz policy in the summer of 1948. Famous firsts abounded: it was the first Boston club to present as leaders Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, and Sarah Vaughan. But it was more to Boston than a name-band room. Dozens of Boston musicians worked there, including Dean Earl, Rollins Griffith, Bernie Griggs, Clarence Jackson, Sabby Lewis, Charlie Mariano, Nat Pierce, Fat Man Robinson, Hillary Rose, Jimmy Tyler, Al Vega, and many more. Symphony Sid set up shop here and broadcast live nightly over WCOP from “the Jazz Corner of Boston.”

The club had just been remodeled and was operating under new ownership. Given the degree of devastation, there were rumors of arson, but they remain just rumors. The walls were pulled down, and on March 12, Boston was hit by the biggest snowstorm of the season, so evidence would have been hard to find.

There’s a whole chapter about the Hi-Hat in The Boston Jazz Chronicles.

Here’s Charlie Parker recorded at the Hi-Hat, “Now’s the Time,” backed by a Boston band of Herbie Williams, trumpet; Jay Migliori, tenor sax; Rollins Griffith, piano; Jimmy Woode, bass; Marquis Foster, drums. There is some dispute on the date, but it is probably Jan 23, 1954.

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