July 13: Boston’s Big Band ‘Bones I
Last week I was thinking about trombonist Dick LeFave, another of the almost-forgotten ones of Boston jazz, and regretted I already had something written for his birthday, July 9. Then I started thinking about other trombone players who were active in the Boston Jazz Chronicles time frame, 1937-62, and where they perched on the “almost forgotten” to “well known” scale. I came up with a list of almost thirty.
Except for a few trad/Dixieland players, these trombonists served time in the big bands. Some were in Boston-based units, like those of Nat Pierce (Sonny Truitt, Mert Goodspeed, Bob Carr), Jimmie Martin (Jimmy Taylor, Jack Jeffers, Hampton Reese, Jaki Byard—yes, Jaki played trombone, too), and Herb Pomeroy (Gene DiStasio, Joe Ciavardone, Bill Legan). A few went from big bands to prominence in small groups (Vic Dickenson, J.C. Higginbotham), and a few went from small local groups to prominence in important big bands (Phil Wilson, Chuck Connors).
Then there are the five trombonists associated with Artie Shaw: Harry Rodgers, Gus Dixon, and Ray Conniff in civilian bands, and Vahey “Tak” Takvorian and Dick LeFave in the navy band. With the exception of Conniff, the Shaw trombonists are not well known, and even Conniff is remembered for his easy-listening endeavors rather than his fine work with Shaw.
But back to Earle “Dick” LeFave. The word I’ve heard most often to describe LeFave’s playing is “smooth.” He had a rich, melodious tone, and was an imaginative soloist (Joe Ciavardone said LeFave reminded him of Jack Jenney). His slide technique seemed effortless.
Lefave was born in Boston July 9, 1914, and played in society bands until about 1938, when he joined Sam Donahue. By 1942, LeFave was on Benny Goodman’s band, playing beside Lou McGarity. He enlisted in the navy that year, and on Donahue’s recommendation, joined Artie Shaw’s navy band, as did Donahue himself. LeFave rejoined Goodman briefly after the war, and Donahue again in 1946. Tired of the road, he quit Donahue in April 1947.
In Boston in January 1948, LeFave was one of many name-band musicians left out in the cold at the end of the big band era. He was teaching at the Conn School of Music by day, and playing every style of jazz and pop music by night. In 1949, he moved to Rockport, and looking for a hedge against an uncertain future in the music business, took up barbering.
Between 1948 and 1951, LeFave played dance music, Dixieland, swing with Frankie Newton, R&B, and in Dave Lester’s Latin Quarter Orchestra (a band top-heavy with name-band talent), played behind Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, and Billy Eckstine.
LeFave dabbled with bop a bit at the Hi-Hat, but for the most part he stayed with swing, and in 1951 he became part of the like-minded group that worked for George Wein. From 1951 to 1955, LeFave was a regular at Storyville and Mahogany Hall, along with Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, Buck Clayton, and others. LeFave was on the band for the inaugural Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival in 1954.
After the mid-fifties, LeFave’s activity in Boston declined, and after the mid-sixties, it seemed to end. If he played in later decades, he did so on the North Shore.
Dick LeFave died on July 3, 1998.
Sam Donahue assumed leadership of the navy band in 1944, and they made a V-Disc, “LST Party,” to commemorate their dismal crossing of the Atlantic in a ship not designed for ocean cruising. LeFave takes the first solo.