March 15, 1945: Bunk Bugs Bechet, Gets Boot
“Bunk in Beantown with Bechet Band,” read Down Beat’s headline over an article describing Sidney Bechet’s arrival at the Savoy Cafe, accompanied by New Orleans trumpeter William “Bunk” Johnson. Bechet, also from New Orleans, was an early jazz pioneer and regarded as a master of the clarinet and soprano saxophone. Johnson, though active in early New Orleans, never let accuracy stand in the way of a good story, and his actual role and influence remained unclear. He was inactive in the thirties and “rediscovered” in the early 1940s, and in March 1945 he was a member of Bechet’s new band.
The engagement did not go well. Bechet, not a man of mild temperment himself, clashed almost immediately with the unpredictable and hard-drinking Johnson. When Johnson was on, he was good, but he wasn’t on very often. Nat Hentoff, who was broadcasting these sessions over WMEX radio, told the story that Bechet would sit down front with shots of whisky lined up on his table, listening to Bunk play. When Sidney didn’t like what he heard, he’d down a shot and throw the glass at Johnson.
This went on for about three weeks. In early April, Bechet fired Johnson and brought in young Johnny Windhurst to play trumpet, and things settled down. Bechet’s band stayed at the Savoy until early June. This engagement marked the beginning of the “Dixieland Revival” in Boston.
Here is Bechet’s quintet with Bunk Johnson, from one of those WMEX broadcasts. The rest of the group included Hank Duncan on piano, Fred Moore on drums, and Pops Foster on bass, who became quite a crowd favorite at the Savoy.