August 13, 1952: When Bernstein Played the Blues
George Wein opened a Storyville in Harwich, on Cape Cod, in 1958, but he had Summer Storyvilles before that. In the early ’50s, Wein commandeered club rooms in North Shore resort hotels, like the Oceanside Hotel in Magnolia and the Hawthorne Inn in Gloucester, both long gone.
It was in 1952, Wein’s second year at the Hawthorne Inn, that the celebrated Leonard Bernstein got involved with Storyville. Wein had gotten to know Bernstein earlier that year, while participating in a jazz symposium that Bernstein had organized at Brandeis University, his employer at the time.
The band at the Hawthorne Inn included Ruby Braff, trombonist Eddie Hubble, clarinetist Jack Fuller, bassist Jimmy Woode, drummer Peter Littman, and Wein sharing piano duties with Harvard undergraduate Steve Kuhn. The musicians were quartered in a fine summer home they rented in nearby Rockport.
One night after work, with Fuller, Littman, and Wein asleep in the house, the place caught fire. The trio got out, but before the fire department arrived the old frame house was completely in flames. Everything the musicians owned, including horns, was destroyed. The house was a total loss, and no cause was ever determined.
The house was probably insured, but that didn’t help the musicians earn a living, so they planned a benefit back in Boston to raise money to replace the lost horns. Jimmy Woode and Marquis Foster would anchor the house rhythm section. Wein called some friends, including Pee Wee Russell, and then at Braff’s suggestion, called Bernstein, who was happy to help out. He drove in from Tanglewood on August 13, the appointed day.
The joint was mobbed—about 450 people turned out to hear Bernstein play jazz. It was a hot August night, pouring rain, and Storyville, with no air conditioning, was a steam bath. Bernstein played “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” to generous applause, and then sat in with Russell’s group. Wein wrote: “Leonard Bernstein was an important figure in contemporary music, but he didn’t seem to know how to resolve a twelve-bar blues. He just played the piano with his concept of jazz feeling. Pee Wee followed Lenny’s lead, in his own angular fashion. The resulting collaboration was bizarre. Melodic phrases trailed off aimlessly, or met with other phrases in an incongruous fashion.”
The late Mel Levine recorded Bernstein Meets Russell, and he played it for me. It’s bizarre, all right.
Others, more sure-footed, also played, including J.C. Higginbotham, Al Drootin, and the entire Sabby Lewis band, who came by between sets of their own gig that night at Sugar Hill.
The benefit raised enough money to buy Braff, Fuller, and Hubble new horns. No one in 1952 was talking about how “a community came together,” but that’s what happened, in no small part because of Leonard Bernstein. Said Wein: “He had saved the day.”
Levine wasn’t set up in time to record “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” so here’s the original version, by Meade Lux Lewis. Just image Bernstein, in a hot, crowded saloon, playing it.