The Down Beat Club, upstairs at 245 Tremont Street in the Theatre District, had a regrettably short life, but nonetheless played a role in establishing modern jazz in Boston.
In late 1947, Boston’s music schools were filled with veterans studying on the GI Bill, and its commercial dance bands were populated by out-of-work big-band musicians. Many in both camps were looking for new directions in jazz, and were still talking about Dizzy Gillespie’s October concert at Symphony Hall, his “Program of the New Jazz.” Now the musicians needed a place to play this music, but Boston’s bastion of jazz, the Savoy, was more interested in older styles than new directions. The Down Beat Club filled that need, at least for a short while.
One of my favorite “lost” Boston records is Charlene Bartley’s The Weekend of a Private Secretary, originally released in 1957 (RCA LPM-1478). It’s the story in song of a woman who weekends in Havana, finds romance (c’mon now, it’s the fifties), and returns home sadder but wiser. Bartley and the album’s guitarist, Don Alessi, were working the singers’ rooms in Boston prior to the record’s release, and an important one was the Jewel Room in the Bostonian Hotel, now part of the Berklee College of Music.
Bartley hailed from Los Angeles, and it was bandleader Al Donahue who initially brought her back East. The Boston-born Donahue hired Bartley in California in late 1947. They recorded a few sides on the Tune-Disk label just before the second recording ban took effect, and at least one of them, “My Old Fashioned Gal,” ended up on the Boston Crystal-Tone label (Crystal-Tone 523) in 1948. Donahue was back in Boston, with Bartley singing, in 1949.
Bartley toured with Donahue in the early 1950s, but she apparently gave up the road to settle in Boston. Donahue made an annual stop in Boston for a long residence at the Statler Hotel, and Bartley sang with him there through 1957. She also recorded a forgettable single on his Aldon Records label in 1956, but by that time she was on the staff at Boston’s WHDH-AM. There she met guitarist Don Alessi, one of the Park Squares, a vocal-and-instrumental group then providing music on both radio and television broadcasts.