Apr 19, 1942: First Sunday Jam Session at the Ken Club
What became an institution in Boston jazz, the Sunday afternoon jam session, started in April 1942 at the Ken Club, on the corner of Tremont and Warrenton Streets (a corner that no longer even exists).
Jam sessions started as informal and private affairs among musicians, and that hasn’t changed. In about 1937, though, the idea of a public jam session took hold, where a small group of musicians played unrehearsed music for an invited audience. The audiences grew, and organizers began charging a modest admission fee to pay the musicians enough to meet the union’s minimum scale. A unique set of circumstances established these sessions in Boston on Sunday afternoons, where they remained for some 25 years.
It was the Ken Club, at 58 Warrenton Street, that started the Sunday sessions. The Ken had all the ingredients. First, they had the talent. The Ken was the home of small-group jazz during the war, and the best groups of the day, such as those of Red Allen and Frankie Newton, worked there. There was an energetic organizer in Bill Ingalls, a DJ on WCOP. It was wartime, and Boston was teeming with sailors looking for entertainment. Finally, most New York union musicians had Sundays off, and the Ken could thus invite top musicians to Boston to host the jam sessions.
We don’t know who Ingalls invited to the first session on April 19. He surely invited the better local bands, those of Sabby Lewis and Bob Chestnut. And he probably invited the touring bands then in town—Count Basie’s from the RKO theatre, Les Hite’s from the Roseland-State Ballroom, and Bob Astor’s from the Tic Toc.
The results must have been good, because the papers started talking up the session the next week, when Max Kaminsky was the guest host. All through May, more musicians sat in and more people came to listen, with attendance up to 450 by the end of the month.
That convinced the Hotel Buckminster on Kenmore Square to start a competing Sunday session. Then the Savoy started one, and Little Dixie, and others. It was after the war, though, that the Sunday sessions really took off. Just about every place described in The Boston Jazz Chronicles had one—the Down Beat Club, the Hi-Hat, Izzy Ort’s, Connolly’s, the Melody Lounge, the Stable, Storyville, Wally’s.
Eventually the Sunday jam sessions faded out as times and tastes changed. Although Wally’s still runs one, it doesn’t have much competition. The jam session has been replaced by a new Sunday institution, the odious Jazz Brunch.
Here’s two views of the jam session. First is a Duke Ellington soundie called Jam Session, with a bit of “C-Jam Blues.” Then there’s something closer to the real thing, with Sean Jones and Marcus Printup going at it in a festival session in 2006.