The Troy Street Observer

July 11: Remembering Jimmy Derba

Photo of Jimmy Derba
Jimmy Derba, 1963. Photo Salem State Archives.

Jimmy Derba is one of those musicians who is often overlooked. Not a big name, but a talented musician whose career was sadly cut short. He was best known as a baritone saxophonist, but he played all the saxes, clarinet, and flute. He was born in Everett, Mass. on June 26, 1935 and died on this day in 1981.

Like many other musicians, Jimmy Derba had a day job. His was as an engineer, with the Boston Redevelopment Authority and later with the Massachusetts Port Authority. But jazz was his passion.

Derba studied at Berklee and took private lessons with Tony Viola, and was a member of Herb Pomeroy’s backup band (the one Phil Wilson calls “the B-Band”) in 1954-55. In 1959 he replaced Jimmy Mosher on baritone in the Pomeroy Orchestra (Mosher moved to alto), and remained when Pomeroy downsized in 1960. He also played with Varty Haroutunian’s Octet, the Wednesday night band at the Stable. He sat next to Dick Johnson in both Herb’s and Varty’s bands.

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July 10: Jimmy McHugh’s Boston Years

Photo of Jimmy McHugh
Jimmy McHugh, ca. 1918

The Bay State has had its share of contributors to the Great American Songbook (Louis Alter, Billy Hill, the brothers Charles and Harry Tobias, Harry M. Woods), but the one at the top of the list is Jimmy McHugh, from Jamaica Plain. He wrote some 500 songs between the mid-1920s and mid-1950s, among them “A Most Unusual Day,” “Don’t Blame Me,” “Exactly Like You,” and “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening.” The prolific McHugh earned his spot in the top tier of American songwriters.

We visited McHugh earlier this year, when he returned to Boston as a conquering hero and the mayor honored him with “Jimmy McHugh Day” in 1960. On this his birthday, we’ll go to the other end of his career, when he was starting out.

McHugh learned the piano at home, at a time when the piano in the parlor and the family singalong were the state-of-the-art home entertainment system. His mother was a fine pianist and Jimmy’s first teacher. He played both classical and popular music, and she encouraged him at every opportunity.

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July 9, 1904: Tasker Crosson’s Academy of Music

Tasker C. Crosson, born on this day in 1904, was an influential Boston bandleader from the early 1930s to the early 1940s, although his entire career stretched from the mid 1920s to the mid 1950s. His influence stems from his on-the-job school for a generation of Boston jazz musicians, an orchestra called the Ten Statesmen (or Twelve, or Fourteen, depending on the job). Crosson knew talent when he heard it, and was a patient teacher.

This did not always work to Mr. Crosson’s advantage, and it did not always earn him respect. Boston pianist and arranger Charlie Cox said in a mid 1980s interview that musicians around town called Crosson’s a “schoolin’ band,” where a youngster might go to learn how to read and transpose, and presumably learn how to play in a section—and then advance to a better band, like Preston Sandiford’s, or the Alabama Aces of Joe Nevils. Cox was still looking down on the Crosson outfit, saying “his band wasn’t the best…his musicians were almost amateurs.”

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Tasker Crosson and His Twelve Statesmen at Butler Hall, 1936


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July 8, 1943: Boston’s Savoy Cafe Is Open Again

Image of Pete BrownAfter the fire that destroyed the Cocoanut Grove in November 1942, the City of Boston ordered 52 night spots to close, and stay closed, until their fire protection systems passed a  safety inspection. The order took effect on December 1, and by December 5 places were reopening. The Savoy Cafe, at 461 Columbus Ave, was cleared to reopen, but it did not. Owner Steve Connolly kept the room dark and let the lease run out.

Even before the fire, rumors were circulating that Connolly was looking for a new South End location for his club, with the likely site being the former Royal Palms, at 410 Mass Ave, a club that had closed in 1939. The rumors proved correct, and Connolly reopened on Mass Ave on July 8.

The new room was bigger than the one left behind. The interior walls were lined with mirrors (many of which eventually gave way to murals), and the exterior front was made of red brick below and glass block above. Press releases said the room was air-conditioned, but I doubt it, given how people were conserving fuel during wartime.

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July 6, 1963: When the Saints Went Marching Out

Photo of George Lewis
Clarinetist George Lewis

We’ll make one last visit to Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival, to bid it farewell.

The first nine years of Jazz Night, from 1954 through 1962, always had a good local flavor. The advisors, George Wein and Father Norman O’Connor, made sure of it. But Wein left Boston for New York in 1960, and O’Connor was transferred there by his Paulist order in 1962. Even if he were still a Bostonian, Wein might have begged off, because the 1963 Jazz Night conflicted with Newport, on July 6. In fact, Father O’Connor was emcee at Newport on the 6th, welcoming familiar faces like Ruby Braff, Ken McIntyre, Roy Haynes, and Johnny Hodges to the bandstand.

But back to that local flavor. Boston bands always anchored the proceedings, although guest soloists like Gerry Mulligan or Cannonball Adderley might be featured. Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, Serge Chaloff, Herb Pomeroy, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Rollins Griffith…it was an opportunity for Boston’s musicians to play before the hometown crowd.

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July 5, 1948: Big Band Chooses Nat Pierce as New Leader

Label for Crystal-Tone 521B
Crystal-Tone 521B, “What Can I Say Dear After I Say I’m Sorry,” by Ray Borden

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.

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July 4, 1925: Did Hot Jazz Bring Down the Pickwick Club?

It was 3:00 in the morning on July 4, 1925, at the Pickwick Club, a licensed social club—a speakeasy—at 6 Beach Street in downtown Boston. McGlennon’s Jazz Orchestra was on the bandstand, with Johnny Duffy singing “Twelfth Street Rag.” There were perhaps 125 people in the room at the time, maybe 50 of them dancing.

The Boston Post, the Day After
The Boston Post, the Day After

An employee, standing outside the second-story club’s barred door, heard a sound he described as being like “a granulated substance falling on paper.” He went to the empty third floor to investigate, but found nothing out of the ordinary. A few minutes later, water began splashing to the club’s floor. At about 3:05, plaster started falling, lights went out, the ceiling collapsed, the floor gave way, two side walls caved in, and the whole building came crashing down.

It was a catastrophe, and the death toll eventually reached 44, singer Johnny Duffy among them. A stunned Boston asked, “how could this happen?”

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July 3, 1967: The Kids Are Alright at Newport

Although saxophonist Henry “Boots” Mussulli still led a quartet in the mid-sixties, the main focus of his professional life then was on teaching. He taught privately as well as in the Milford, Mass. schools, and he enjoyed it.

In November 1964, Mussulli and his Milford friend Leo Curran organized the Milford Area Youth Orchestra. With a network of music teachers recommending potential members, Mussulli began auditioning what was to be an 18-piece big band. But Mussulli had a hard time turning away any worthy youngster, and his band ended up with 54 pieces, and players anywhere from 11 to 18 years of age. Mussulli wrote the arrangements, and composed a few originals, for the large ensemble, which performed its initial concert in May 1965. The band was popular, and able to fill school auditoriums easily.

Photo of Youth Orchestra
Boots Mussulli rehearsing the Milford Area Youth Orchestra, 1967. Photo by Bob Howard.

In January 1967, the Milford band played a standout set in a “Jazz for Youth” program at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival in January 1967. George Wein, waiting to play with his Newport All-Stars, was floored. He invited the Milford band to Newport. “All I think of when I see and hear these kids is that if every high school in every town had a band like this, we wouldn’t have to worry about the future of jazz,” he later said.

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