October 2: Never a Dull Moment at Izzy Ort’s
Sam Rivers told me: “It got rough sometimes. You’d get the Navy and the Marines in there, and they could destroy the place in five minutes. The police would come in and it would be a shambles. I still don’t understand why people weren’t getting badly hurt—they were throwing bottles around in there.”
Rivers was referring to Izzy Ort’s Bar & Grille, a club at 25 Essex Street, and if you were to look up “bucket of blood” in a musicians’ slang dictionary, the entry might read: “See Izzy Ort’s.”
Isadore Ort was born October 2, 1893 in Brooklyn. He was raised there, quit school after fourth grade, and eventually found work as a Coney Island bartender, pouring drinks in saloons where Eddie Cantor sang and Jimmy Durante played piano. At 21, he was president of the bartenders union in New York City. Ort arrived in Boston in the early 1930s in the employ of a bootlegger, and he must have liked the town, because he opened the Grille in 1935 and stayed with it until 1969.
Izzy stepped right out of a Damon Runyon story. Ort always wore a trenchcoat and fedora, smoked a cigar, spent his days at Suffolk Downs, settled disputes at his club with his flashlight, one of those long metal ones that used four D-cell batteries. Durante told a reporter his nickname in Brooklyn was “Knife-in-the-Pocket.”
Ort’s was a big place, with music on two floors. El Tropico was the room upstairs, and it was mostly music. The main room at street level was constantly in motion, with continuous entertainment from noon to closing. The bands had to play for strippers and singers as well as for dancers…this was a big, boisterous place, a sailors’ joint. There were four bands working downstairs on any given day, with two shifts and two bands alternating on each shift, and at least one more band working nights in El Tropico.
That takes a lot of musicians, and many Boston jazzmen filled slots in those bands. I assembled a list of musicians who worked at Orts in the forties and fifties who have appeared in this blog in 2013. In no particular order: Ruby Braff, Joe Nevils, Sammy Lowe, Bunny Campbell, Hy Lockhart, Nick Jerret, Preston Sandiford, Hopeton Johnson, Charlie Hooks, Charlie Cox, Charlie Mariano, Bernie Griggs, Herb Pomeroy with Dick Twardzik and Jim Clark, Sam Rivers with Larry Willis and Larry Winters, Jaki Byard, Nat Pierce, Quincy Jones, Marquis Foster, Tom Brown, Don Stratton, Floogie Williams, Hal Galper, the Lee brothers (Roland, Herbie, and Willis, not necessarily at the same time), Manny Denize, Danny Kent, Carl Nappi, Bob Pilsbury, and Roy Haynes.
When jazz and jump music were popular, Izzy booked them. When other types of music became popular, Ort booked those instead. In 1953 Ort redecorated the Grille with a California Gold Rush theme, renamed the place the Golden Nugget, and started with hillbilly music. He was booking rock bands by 1956, and most of the jazz guys were gone by the end of that year. But as long as there were soldiers and sailors, and drinks and loud music, the circus atmosphere prevailed at Izzy Ort’s. In 1956, the Harvard Crimson had a helpful suggestion for anyone planning a visit to Ort’s: “take a club.”
Howlin’ Wolf has the right tune for this place: “Wang Dang Doodle.”