Apr 7: The Jazz Scene of John McLellan
John McLellan, Boston’s one-man jazz media machine in the 1950s, was born in Shanghai, China, on April 7, 1926. For ten years, McLellan was the most prominent jazz advocate in the Boston media, with programs on commercial radio and television, and a column in a daily newspaper. He was a good spokesman for jazz—intelligent but not smug, respectful of his readers and listeners, and attracted to honest and well-played music from across the entire spectrum of jazz. Nothing irked him as much as fakery and closed-mindedness.
WHDH radio hired McLellan while he was an engineering student at MIT in 1951. He started with a half-hour program on Sunday evening called The Top Shelf—and the program director told him not to mention “jazz” on the air because it might frighten away the listeners. It didn’t, and despite tepid support from station management, the show’s popularity grew and McLellan got more air time. The program ended in February 1961. In the mid-fifties, McLellan also broadcast a “live from Storyville” show on Tuesday nights on WHDH for three years.
In August 1957, McLellan began writing a twice-weekly newspaper column, “The Jazz Scene,” for the daily Boston Traveler. “The Jazz Scene” continued until September 1961, some 400 columns in all. I could not have written The Boston Jazz Chronicles without “The Jazz Scene” and its nonstop news, reviews, and interviews. It covered the week-to-week life of the Boston jazz community, from high-school bands to Storyville, for four years. Those columns remain an invaluable record.
McLellan completed his media trifecta on May 5, 1958, when he broadcast the first Jazz Scene show on WHDH-TV. Every two weeks, that station turned the set and crew of its popular Dateline show over to McLellan, who presented his guests in casual conversations and sets of relaxed blowing. He featured Ellington and Armstrong but also local players like Lennie Johnson, Ken McIntyre, and Ray Santisi. He gave up the show in early 1962, and unfortunately no tape survives.
McLellan was busy on other jazz activities as well in the fifties, but after ten years of total immersion, he was ready for a change. As he told me: “I enjoyed the interviews, and the TV shows, and the contact with the great musicians, but I had said everything I had to say, and I was starting to repeat myself. I just decided it was time, so I left broadcasting.”
In a city rich in writing and broadcasting talent, no one has ever quite achieved the level of print and broadcast success that McLellan enjoyed in the 1950s.