Dec 31: On the Town, Boston Jazz Chronicles Edition
Last week I watched Alastair Sim as Scrooge in the 1951 film, A Christmas Carol, and seeing poor Scrooge dragged through the years on Christmas night gave me the idea to do something similar for my New Year’s Eve post. So here, without any guiding ghosts, is a look at New Year’s Eve past, Boston Jazz Chronicles style.
December 31, 1936… Bobby Hackett with Brad Gowans at the Theatrical Club, the residence that put Hackett on the national stage… 1938: The first Boston visit of Les Brown and His Band of Renown, at the Raymor Ballroom on Huntington Avenue… 1942: Drummer Alan Dawson’s first gig, with Tasker Crosson’s Ten Statesmen, at the U.S.O. on Ruggles Street…
1943: Fletcher Henderson at the Tic Toc, Ray Perry at the Ken Club, Phil Edmunds and Mabel Robinson at Little Dixie, Sabby Lewis and George Irish at the Savoy Cafe, Georgie Auld at the Raymor. Need to rest? The Gayety Theatre is showing Reveille With Beverly, starring Ann Miller and every name band you can think of.
Sometimes it’s all about the buzz, and so it was at the Hi-Hat on December 29, 1949. Buddy DeFranco was in town for a long stretch over the holidays, and he was a hot commodity at that time. Down Beat published the list of winners of its annual readers poll in the last issue of the year, and that hit newsstands while DeFranco was at the Hi-Hat. Beat readers voted him the number one clarinet man, and it wasn’t the first time, either. DeFranco had won every year since 1945.
With DeFranco were vibist Teddy Charles, pianist Harvey Leonard, guitarist Perry Lopez, bassist Teddy Kotick, and drummer Frank DeVito. Boston guitarist Frankie Rue led the house trio that alternated sets with DeFranco’s sextet.
Ray Barron was Down Beat’s Boston correspondent in 1949, but journalism wasn’t his strong suit. Public relations was, and he saw the timing of the Down Beat award as an opportunity. He arranged to have the award presented to DeFranco at the Hi-Hat, and for the presenter to be none other than Boston Pops maestro Arthur Fiedler.
If you weren’t satisfied by the seasonal lights of Christmas trees and innumerable illuminated Rudolphs and Frostys, the Modern Theatre had just the thing to boost your spirits on Christmas night, 1978. It was a new lighting machine, and it was creating wild visual effects for Sun Ra’s Arkestra.
The Modern, at 523 Washington Street, was where Bostonians saw the first talking picture shown in the city, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, in 1928. That was then, and by the 1970s, the Modern had fallen on hard times. Like its neighbors the Paramount and the Savoy, the Modern was in desperate need of rehabilitation. In 1976 David Archer purchased the building through a non-profit venture and set about the task.
Archer envisioned an arts district on Lower Washington Street that would link the restaurants around Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market with the Tremont Street Theatre District. He wasn’t alone in this idea, either, as the Opera Company of Boston bought the Savoy Theatre in 1978.
This December 21 witnessed the 41st annual Aardvark Christmas Concert, an event that was held for the first time on this day in 1973. The concert is a tradition in Boston, always well attended—this year they ran out of programs.
Aardvark itself upholds two concert-night traditions it started in 1973—that the program be musically arresting, and that the night benefit a good cause. This year Aardvark did both, again, in most pleasing fashion. It performed the entire Ellington-Strayhorn Nutcracker Suite, and I can’t recall anybody doing that in Boston, and it donated generously to the Pine Street Inn. ‘Tis the season.
The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra is of course the chief musical preoccupation of trumpeter, composer, and arranger Mark Harvey. He was already something of a Christmas music veteran in 1973; for three years he’d been leading the Boston Brass Ensemble, a group he organized to play at the city’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony and other holiday events. Aardvark grew out of the Boston Brass Ensemble. It added a rhythm section to the brass group, and it expanded the repertoire into the realms of Harvey’s interests, big-band and free jazz.
Today’s post may, or may not, have something to do with Boston jazz, and determining whether it does might require the services of an Ellington scholar. The subject is “B Sharp Boston,” recorded by Duke Ellington in New York on December 22, 1949, and issued on a Columbia Priceless Edition single.
“B Sharp Boston” might be Duke’s musical reaction to the events recounted in this blog’s Dec 18 post on the breakup of the Sabby Lewis Orchestra. Sabby was well known in New York, and the breakup would have been big news in the jazz community there. Ellington was Sabby’s friend, and Duke admired his piano playing. And the friendships went up and down the line in both bands—some grew up together in Boston, others worked together in New York, and everybody knew everybody. I’m sure Duke had all the sad details on the breakup before he sat down to lunch on December 19.
Norm Nathan, born on this date in 1925, hosted Sounds in the Night, a jazz program on Boston’s WHDH-AM, from 1956 to 1968. Each weeknight, from 11:30 to 5:30, Nathan would spin records and interview guests.
Nathan started in radio in 1944, but it wasn’t until he arrived at WMEX in 1952 that he played a jazz record on the air. His own shows were mundane, but he could play better music when he filled in for Nat Hentoff as host of Jazz Album. Nathan was out of radio for a time after WMEX, and was hired at WHDH in 1956.
Nathan was supposed to play easy-listening pop music through the overnight hours, but he began slipping jazz records into the mix, and night owls started listening. He added more jazz and found more listeners, especially among the college crowd. Eventually he had the show he wanted, or close to it. In 1958, Basie supplied a suitable theme song, “Midnite Blue.”
Dec 18, 1949: Last Call for the Sabby Lewis Orchestra
“Sabby Lewis is really rollin’ at the Show Boat!” gushed George Clarke in his Daily Record column of December 7, 1949 (earlier Lewis entries here and here). “And with Jimmy Tyler back in the fold, plus a new and fabulous trumpeter, the band is hotter than ever.” That fabulous trumpeter was none other than Cat Anderson.
The Lewis Orchestra never had such punch, with Anderson joining longtime brass men Gene Caines and Maceo Bryant, and Tyler rejoining Bill Dorsey and Dan Turner in the sax section. Lewis, Al Morgan, and Joe Booker formed an unbeatable rhythm section, and Marilyn Kilroy handled the vocals. This was a formidable band.
Sabby brought the orchestra to the Show Boat, at 252 Huntington Avenue, in late November, leaving his home base at the Hi-Hat. It was a questionable decision. The club had no established clientele, and certainly no jazz clientele, because it had cycled through numerous entertainment policies in the postwar years and none of them had clicked. In fact, jazz fans’ impressions of the place were probably negative because of the bad feelings surrounding the closure of the Zanzibar Club there in 1948. Finally, the Show Boat was too far away from the cluster of clubs around Mass Ave and Columbus, where all the people were.
Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean opened at Connolly’s on December 17 for a week-long engagement. As was the custom at Connolly’s then, McLean worked as featured soloist with a local rhythm section. Jim Connolly hired a good one: pianist Ray Santisi, bassist John Neves, and drummer Tony Williams.
Santisi and Neves were obvious choices. They’d already been playing together for nine years, starting as the Jazz Workshop Quartet at the Stable and then with all subsequent bands that called that venue home. With Jimmy Zitano, they formed the rhythm section that drove the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra.
Both had been branching out as well. Santisi toured earlier in 1962 with Buddy DeFranco. Neves spent time in 1961 with Maynard Ferguson, and later worked with the small groups of Stan Getz and Gary Burton. Santisi was in his fifth year teaching at Berklee.
Alto and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Tyler, born in Kittrell, NC on Dec 15, 1918, is no stranger to this blog—his career is covered in entries on Mar 11, April 24, and May 29. I’m posting today to let you know I’ve finally uploaded one of his out-of-print Federal recordings to YouTube.
Here is Jimmy Tyler on tenor with a crack studio band playing his own 1956 composition, “Pink Clouds.” I’ve always liked Cliff Leeman’s drumming here. This isn’t the kind of mainstream jazz we associate with Leeman, but his touch is well suited to this tune.
Billy Eckstine and his orchestra opened at the Rio Casino for two weeks on December 8, 1946, and on Saturday the 14th, they were playing to a packed house. All went well until the end of the second show, just before closing. Boston’s blue laws required all nightclubs to close at midnight on Saturday to honor the Sabbath, and Eckstine was wrapping up for the night. That’s when the trouble started.
I’ve read two different accounts of what happened next, one in Nat Hentoff’s Counterpoint newsletter and the other in the Jan 15, 1947 issue of Down Beat. They differ in details but agree on the main points: someone in the crowd insulted Eckstine; some of the crowd and some of the band pushed and shoved; and the Rio announced that it would no longer book black bands.
First the insult. Yes, it was the n-word, and it was hurled at Eckstine when he said he could not play any more requests because of the imminent closing time. In one account, the guilty party was a woman, and in the other it was her companion. Either way, Eckstine cut the music and left the stage to confront the couple. The guy kicked Eckstine, who flattened him, and “flattened” is the verb both accounts used.