The Troy Street Observer

June 9, 1954: Jazz Night Born at the Boston Arts Festival

Cover of Storyville LP 311
Jazz at the Boston Arts Festival, STLP 311, 1954. Cover by Burt Goldblatt.

Jazz Night was first included as part of the program during the Third Boston Arts Festival, in 1954. Jazz happily took its place on the festival stage in the Public Garden on the festival’s third night, following Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and preceding Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness.

Jazz Night came about though the lobbying efforts of Father Norman O’Connor, the Jazz Priest from Boston University, George Wein of Storyville, and John McLellan of WHDH radio. They, and their allies, convinced the Brahmin-heavy Board of Trustees to try jazz for one night to see how it went.

They started the night with an erudite panel discussing some flavor or other of “is jazz serious music.” Panelists included O’Connor, McLellan, and Wein, as well as Rod Nordell from the Christian Science Monitor and Prof. Klaus Liepmann, head of the Music Department at MIT. The panel asserted that jazz could indeed be taken seriously.
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June 25, 1920: Happy Birthday to Joe Viola, Master of Reeds

Cover of Jazz in the Classroom
Six Pieces for Eight Reeds and Joe Viola plays ’em all

Joe Viola was both an exemplary educator and a superb woodwind player. He was highly respected on both counts, and his many friends remember him warmly.

Viola’s apprenticeship as a saxophonist started in his home town, the Boston suburb of Malden, with his older brother, saxophonist Tony, who took Joe on jobs while he was still in high school. Joe turned professional after graduation, and got on his first name band in 1938, when he replaced Benny Kanter (also a Bostonian) as lead alto in Ben Pollock’s band. In 1940 he moved on to Richard Himber, Red Norvo and the NBC studios. Following a wartime hitch in the U.S. Army, he returned to Boston.

In 1945 Viola studied with Lawrence Berk at Schillinger House, and Berk must have recognized the teacher in him, because he hired Viola in 1946. He taught the woodwinds, but also theory, composing, and ensembles. Later he founded the Berklee Saxophone Quartet with John LaPorta, who called Viola the best soprano saxophone player he ever heard. He was the first chairman of the Woodwind Department, and although he stepped down from that post in 1985, he continued to teach until 1996—a full 50 years at Berklee.

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June 24, 1989: McKenna’s Last Set at the Plaza Bar

Photo of Dave McKenna
Dave McKenna in the 1980s

On Saturday, June 24, the Age of McKenna ended at the Plaza Bar in the Copley Plaza Hotel.

Dave McKenna first worked at the Copley Plaza in 1976, a trio date in the big street-level room that was then called the Merry-Go-Round, with its revolving stage in the center of the room. They usually hired singers there, good ones, but even talent like Teddi King and Johnny Hartman were unable to solve the creaking and groaning of the rotating stage.

The Merry-Go-Round was gone in 1979, replaced by the Plaza Bar, and the singers were replaced by pianists like Teddy Wilson in long residences. In 1981, the hotel management decided to book one pianist for a seven-month season starting just after Labor Day, and on September 13, 1981, the Age of McKenna began at the Plaza Bar.

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Jun 23 1955: Wein, Wales, Wail for Atlantic Records

Cover of Wein, Women and Song
Atlantic LP 1221, 1955

As George Wein tells it in his autobiography, Myself Among Others, it was George Frazier’s idea to have Wein, owner of Storyville Records, record an album for Atlantic Records, a competitor. Frazier suggested it to Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun, who liked the idea of Wein playing and singing standards in a trio format. They signed a deal and scheduled a session for April 1955.

Wein apparently had more in mind than just a trio recording. For the April date, Wein had his bassist, Stan Wheeler, and drummer, Marquis Foster, both from his Storyville house band. But he also brought cornetist Ruby Braff and tenor saxophonist Sammy Margolis, and the mood was jazz. By the end of the session, the quintet had completed eight tunes, not quite enough for an album.

Before the group could reconvene, however, Wein was in the studio producing a record date for a singer/pianist for his own Storyville Records. On June 23, he had bassist Bill Pemberton, drummer Jo Jones, and the mystery trumpeter, Wally Wales, ready to go. The problem was, the singer had a few drinks and was unable to function. Wein had already paid the musicians, so he took over the piano and microphone and recorded enough material to fill out the Atlantic album. Wales, wrote Wein, “played beautifully behind me.”

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June 22, 1921: Pianist Al Vega Born in Worcester

Photo of Al Vega
Al Vega, ca. 1974

Anybody who’s familiar with Boston jazz knows about pianist and arranger Al Vega, by virtue of his 69 years as a professional musician here, from 1938 to 1942, and then from 1946 until his death in 2011 (he served in the army 1942-1946). That covers the tenures of 9 Boston mayors, 13 U.S. presidents, and 24 Red Sox managers. That’s a lot of coming and going.

Vega (born Aram Vagramian, in Worcester) was one of the young musicians who advanced quickly during the war as they replaced army-bound older musicians. Vega was a frequent substitute in the name bands, and a regular at the Ken Club jam sessions, where he played alongside Sidney Bechet, Red Allen, and Jo Jones. Then Vega, too, went into the service.

Jazz jobs weren’t abundant after the war, and Vega worked in dance bands—George Graham, Ruby Newman, Syd Ross—while completing his studies at the New England Conservatory.

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June 21, 1961: Langston Hughes Picketed at Boston Arts Fest

The Weary Blues Dust Jacket
Dust jacket–The Weary Blues, published 1926

The Tenth Annual Boston Arts Festival ran from June 8 to 25 in the Public Garden, and it featured Douglas Moore’s opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, and a revival of George M. Cohan’s The Tavern, among other performing arts events. The eighth annual Jazz Night was June 20, and it featured poet Langston Hughes with Jimmy Rushing, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee talking and playing through “The Blues: Words and Music.” They were backed by the Festival Jazz Orchestra, led by drummer Joe MacDonald. There was more jazz on the 21st, a mainstream swing quintet led by saxophonist Billy Marshall with his brother Walter on drums.

Combining words and music was not new to Langston Hughes. In fact, he wrote his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, with the intention of reciting it to music. Hughes finally recorded The Weary Blues in 1958 (MGM E3697), reciting the story of his aging bluesman to music composed by Charles Mingus and played by an all-star band of jazzmen. At the Arts Festival, though, he served as more of a narrator and interpreter, describing the origins of the blues and their place in culture.

Unfortunately, events outside of the Arts Festival detracted from the presence of the renowned poet. A group represented by a South Shore postal worker, with the nebulous name of “The American Institute,” claimed Hughes was “a Communist sympathizer and a danger to the children of Boston.” They planned to picket on Jazz Night.

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On June 20, 1927, Harry Carney Joins Duke’s Band

Photo of Harry Carney
Harry Carney in the 1930s

Nineteen twenty-seven was the fourth summer that Charlie Shribman booked Duke Ellington and His Washingtonians on an extended tour of the New England circuit, and it would be the last. The Washingtonians were scheduled for about 35 dates that summer, and the first was on June 20, at Nuttings-on-the-Charles in Waltham. Nuttings, part boat house and part dance hall, was built on pilings over the Charles River at Prospect Street (the pilings are still visible).

This particular night, Duke’s band was in a battle of music with Mal Hallett’s dance band. As Duke told Down Beat in 1962, the Washingtonians were a good band, but “It had to be terrific in those days, because that was when Mal Hallett had a band up in New England and you had to play alongside him. The big dance territories were in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Charlie Shribman put on dances, and they’d have battles of music. All these big bands used to come up from New York, and Mal Hallett would blow them right out over the Charles River. He just played big, fat arrangements of dance music, and most of his guys were legit, but they’d open up with a flag-waver, and that was it!”

In itself, Ellington opening his summer tour at Nuttings is just another gig. More interesting was Duke’s new saxophonist/clarinetist. Harry Carney, 17, had played with Ellington a few times the previous summer, and just a few days before, on June 16, he became a member of the Washingtonians. On the 20th, at Nuttings, Harry Carney played his first engagement as a member of the Ellington band. He would remain for 47 years, three months, and eleven days. Carney was still in the Ellington band, then under Mercer Ellington’s direction, when he died on October 8, 1974. No one had a longer tenure.
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On June 19, 1917, Dave Lambert (of Hendricks and Ross) Born

Photo of Dave Lambert
Dave Lambert, 1964

Dave Lambert is one of those musicians who might fail the “who is a Boston jazz musician” test, depending on who administers the test. But I’m the administrator on this here blog, and I say he passes. Besides, any town would be proud to claim him, because if anyone ever made a joyful jazz noise, it was David Alden Lambert.

Lambert was born and raised in Boston, but apart from working for three years as a drummer in the late thirties, we don’t know much about his pre-army days. He put himself on the jazz map in January 1945 with Gene Krupa’s band, teaming with Buddy Stewart to sing “What’s This?,”credited as the first recording with vocalists singing a bop line. In 1949 Stewart, speaking of Lambert, told Metronome “He’s undoubtedly the greatest bop singer in the business. He’s got such a mind; he sings things that no other bop singer sings. His ideas are wonderful; he improvises like the greatest!”

Turned out he was the greatest, or one-third of it. In 1957 Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross  formed what Down Beat dubbed “the hottest new group in jazz.” There had been harmony before, and vocalese, and witty lyrics, and breakneck tempos, and unison bop lines…but there had never been anything like LH&R. They redefined the art and technique of jazz singing. Wrote John McLellan in October 1958: “After years of pseudo-hip singing by the Four Freshmen and Hi-Los, it was a revelation to listen to this refreshing trio of jazz singers at Storyville last week…Here at last is a group that understands that jazz means more than spread harmony and clever arrangements…The enthusiastic audience response overwhelmed them.”
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