May 7, 1956: Byrd Blows on Beacon Hill
Tom Wilson produced three LPs for trumpeter Donald Byrd on Transition Records: Byrd-Jazz (TRLP-5, recorded in Detroit in August 1955), Byrd’s Eye View (TRLP-4, recorded in Cambridge in December 1955), and Byrd Blows On Beacon Hill (TRLP-17, recorded in Boston on May 7, 1956).
Byrd Blows On Beacon Hill was a quartet date, with bassist Doug Watkins, pianist Ray Santisi, and drummer Jimmy Zitano. Watkins, like Byrd, was a product of the rich Detroit postwar jazz scene, and like Byrd, moved to New York in 1954. Watkins was the original bass player in the Jazz Messengers, and Byrd joined that group when he replaced the original trumpeter, Kenny Dorham.
Santisi and Zitano, of course, were part of the Jazz Workshop crew at the Stable, which is where Byrd first heard them. They had recorded for Wilson on Transition’s first release, Jazz in a Stable.
This recording came at a pivotal point for Byrd and Watkins. Both were about to leave the Jazz Messengers to form a new group under Horace Silver’s leadership, so the May/June period would have been a good time for Wilson to approach Byrd for a recording date.
The LP was made at the Fassett Recording Studio, in the home of Stephen Fassett, on Beacon Hill. Fassett himself is a fascinating character. He was a serious student of opera with his own show on WQXR in New York for many years, and his wife Agatha was a well-known Bartók scholar. Fassett was a self-taught recording engineer, and he recorded concerts at MIT Kresge Hall and the Sanders Theatre, and he built his own home studio on Chestnut Street. Jazz was just a part of his activity. He recorded Joan Baez, Roland Hayes, Tom Lehrer, Sylvia Plath reciting her poetry, and background music for film, among other things. Fassett died in 1980.
Byrd made many hard bop sessions in the fifties and sixties—look no further than Byrd’s Eye View. This quartet date swings more gently, if with less imagination. The word at the time was that Boston jazz did not burn as hot as the hard bop fashioned in New York, that it was cooled a bit by West Coast breezes. Perhaps Byrd on this day went with the prevailing winds.
Read more about Tom Wilson here On Troy Street in the blog entries for March 25, July 12, and September 14.
Here’s the ballad, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” from Byrd Blows on Beacon Hill.