July 5, 1948: Big Band Chooses Nat Pierce as New Leader
Trumpeter Ray Borden first organized a big band in Boston in 1941, but it was not successful. He joined Stan Kenton’s band in late 1942 and remained until spring 1944. He then worked short stints with a half-dozen other name bands, including those of Jack Teagarden and Bobby Sherwood. In late 1945, he organized a new Boston band, and as it matured, it became the band that employed the area’s best white modern jazz players. In 1947 the Borden band recorded at least six sides for Manny Koppelman’s Crystal-Tone Records, and released them in early 1948.
At the time of the Crystal-Tone sessions, the band included trumpeters Gait Preddy and Don Stratton, tenor saxophonist Chuck Stentz, and from Shorty Sherock’s 1946 band, trombonist Mert Goodspeed, alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano, drummer Joe MacDonald, and pianist/arranger Nat Pierce. The Crystal-Tone recordings showed a band that was tight, capable, and modern in outlook.
But not enough people were hearing the Borden band, and apparently Borden didn’t have the respect of his men. Mert Goodspeed remembered that “Borden was a fun guy, a lot of clowning around, but he was not cut out to be a bandleader.” His “management style” was plagued by missteps. Finally, in June 1948, Borden arranged a meeting with a representative of one of the major record labels, who had heard the Crystal-Tones…and Borden blew off the meeting. The rep went back to New York, and that was that.
Over the holiday weekend, the band met and voted to fire Borden and replace him with Nat Pierce. Said Goodspeed: “Nat captured the spirit of the band.”
Pierce, at the time, was inaugurating the jazz policy at the Hi-Hat. Prior to the summer of 1948, this famous Boston jazz club was a whites-only dine-and-dance place, and they started jazz that summer with a trio—Pierce, Mariano, and MacDonald. (In the fall, the club brought in the Sabby Lewis band, and that’s when jazz really got rolling at the Hi-Hat.) Pierce came up working on the Boston buckets-of-blood circuit; with Nick Jerret at the Silver Dollar Bar, with Sam Margolis and Marquis Foster at Izzy Ort’s after that, then with Carl Nappi, Shorty Sherock, and Borden. He arranged most of the Borden Crystal-Tone recordings, the Basie influence already apparent.
Pierce tried to find work but wasn’t any more successful than Borden had been, and that fall Larry Clinton, who was organizing his new band along modern lines, made an offer that led to the breakup of the Pierce band. He hired Pierce and six of his bandmates (Goodspeed, MacDonald, Preddy, alto saxophonist Sebastian Giacco, guitarist Steve Hester, and bassist Frank Vaccaro). At the same time, clarinetist Tommy Reynolds was organizing his “band of tomorrow,” and Stratton and trombonist Sonny Truitt went with him.
The first Nat Pierce Orchestra thus broke up before it really got started, but neither the Clinton nor Reynolds bands lasted very long, either. By early 1949, everyone was back in Boston and Pierce was ready to try again. We’ll pick up the story there on July 16, Nat’s birthday.