The Troy Street Observer

Oct 24–Nov 2, 1955: Miles Davis Quintet at the 5 O’Clock

It’s funny how the size of the crowd at a momentous event seems to swell over time. Sports crowds fill facilities well beyond their capacities; I’ve lost track of the number of Bostonians who insist they saw Orr score The Goal or Fisk hit The Home Run. Music fans aren’t immune, either. Seems like half the city was at Boston Garden for the April 1968 James Brown show that stopped a riot.

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The Miles Davis Quintet at the 5 O’Clock Club. No cover charge!

This brings me to Boston jazz fans of a certain age, all of whom insist they heard the Miles Davis Quintet between October 24 and November 2, 1955. The Quintet played at the 5 O’Clock, a long and narrow room on Huntington Avenue about a block away from Storyville, where the Westin Hotel is now, during its brief foray into name-band jazz. The management called the club Jazzarama then, “the greatest ‘Rama of them all.”

This blog has visited the 5 O’Clock before, to mark the Boston marriage of beat poetry and jazz. But that was 1958, a few years after Jazzarama.

Serge Chaloff inaugurated Jazzarama in September 1955, with his sextet, a revamped edition of his Boston Blow Up! band. They stayed for a month, followed by Davis’s group for ten days. After Davis came the groups of Don Elliott and Teddy Charles, and Jazzarama was shaping up as a serious room for modern jazz. But the name-band policy lasted only until early December. Then the Jazzarama label vanished and the 5 O’Clock reverted to its previous policy of lounge acts, then Dixieland, then polite dance bands, and finally jazz and poetry. But back to Miles.

It was quite a coup for the 5 O’Clock to secure the services of Davis, ahead of the better-known Hi-Hat, where he had worked earlier in 1955, or Storyville, which would welcome him for the first time in April 1956. It was odd, because the club was never particularly successful with any entertainment policy. How could such a place sign an attraction like Miles? But there were murky stories about the club’s ownership, so maybe we should just say Davis played there because somebody knew somebody.

It’s an interesting gig for Miles watchers. The quintet, until a short time before Boston, included Davis with Sonny Rollins, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. In late September, however, Rollins left the group, and in fact the first Boston newspaper ads for Davis still list him. But Miles had already hired John Coltrane to play tenor, and Boston was one of his first engagements with the Quintet. The rest, as they say, etc.

It was one of Boston’s landmark gigs in 1955, a good year for jazz in this town. I wondered if the group was working out the kinks during its ten days in Boston, but everyone I interviewed just smiled and said the band was terrific. And I’m sure they were.

Here’s “Little Melonae,” one of the earliest of Coltrane’s recordings with Davis. In fact, the group went back to New York on October 26, 1955 for a quick Columbia recording session that included “Little Melonae,” and then headed back to Boston.

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  1. I was 16 at the time, in my last year at Salem High, when I got “the bug.” I didn’t know shit about jazz except that it spoke to me. I’d escape to Boston on the train and try to hear as much jazz as possible. One night found myself on Huntington Ave. I’d probably been coming from The Stables where I’d stand at the bottom of the ramp, by the men’s room door, trying to snatch the tidbits of sound coming from the basement jazz club.

    I don’t remember why I went down Huntington. Maybe someone told me there was a club down the street or they just kicked me out because I was under age. It was dark, with an air of mystery, on my own, exploring the nightlife. Getting closer to the The 5 O’clock Lounge, I heard some good music and took an immediate left turn though the leather covered swinging doors.

    Being a naïve, rebellious, Jewish kid from Salem Mass. who’d never seen or met a black person in his 16 year tenure as a citizen of Salem I didn’t know anything about them, one way or another.

    The room was dark, smoky, packed with black people. The only white guy in the joint I immediately got sensitive. But that didn’t last long. It was remarkable. There were five guys on the bandstand, trumpet player crouched with his elbows around his ears, the metal thing in the bell of his horn making a sound just above a whisper, the lanky drummer, arms and legs akimbo, the kid on bass, the tenor player with his horn jutting straight out and a veritable WALL of swinging assaulting the air in the room! It was physical, like punch in the stomach. Combined with the landscape and the intense pressure of the music I got literally scared as the power of the music backed me out the door onto the street!

    Everything that may have happened after that I don’t remember.
    I’d wonder who they were from time to time. It wasn’t until many years later I heard Miles got his first quintet together in Boston. I deduced, but had no hard proof who it was until I read your article.

    Thanks for closing the circle.

    Hal Galper

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