Feb 22, 1960: Held Over! Herman Chittison at the Mayfair Lounge
Herman Chittison, a stride-school pianist who played a gorgeous melody, spent close to two years in Boston in 1959-61. Maybe that wasn’t long enough to qualify him as a “Boston jazz musician,” but he certainly made his presence felt in the time he was here.
Chittison arrived in Boston in October 1959, as resident pianist at the Red Garter in the Lenox Hotel, in the room where the City Bar is now. He remained there through January, joined at least part of the time by singer Greta Rae. Then he moved to the Mayfair Lounge, in Bay Village. The melodic Chittison played solo piano in the lounge while name bands played in the main room. After three weeks, the club announced it was holding over Chittison indefinitely.
Chittison’s career started in 1928, with Zack Whyte’s territory band in Ohio, and in the early 1930s in New York, his soft touch found him work as an accompanist to Adelaide Hall and Ethel Waters. He visited Boston for the first time with a traveling show headlined by comic actor Stepin Fetchit. In late 1933 he went to Europe with the Willie Lewis Orchestra, and the following year recorded with Louis Armstrong in Paris. Chittison and trumpeter Bill Coleman left Lewis in 1938, and formed a band that worked extensively in Cairo, and traveled as far east as India.
Mid-February is a good time to remember the prolific and proficient bassist Jack Lesberg, who was born in Boston on February 14, 1920. Thirty years later, in February 1950, George Frazier, writing in Pageant, named Lesberg to his all-time all-star band, where he shared rhythm section duties with Earl Hines, Charlie Christian, and Gene Krupa. Now, you can take or leave Frazier, but if Lesberg wasn’t worthy of Frazier’s list in 1950, I don’t know who was.
Lesberg played his first stringed instrument at age eight. It was his brother’s violin, and young Jack studied violin and viola with Karl Barleben of the Boston Symphony for six years. (His brother, Dave Lester, led a successful commercial band in Boston and Miami in the ‘40s and ‘50s.) He switched to the double bass when he was 17, and went into the nightclubs. He worked with Silvio Scafati’s band, and with Jack Manning and His Cavalier Strings, in the late 1930s. He also sat in at the Theatrical Club with Bobby Hackett, and this led Lesberg to a job with Muggsy Spanier in 1940.
Lesberg was back in Boston in 1942 and playing in Mickey Alpert’s Orchestra at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, a band Frazier once called “excruciating.” He was working on the night of the infamous fire, a story he told many times. Lesberg moved to New York in 1943. There he quickly established himself as a top bassist in the world of “Nicksieland,” or “New York Dixieland,” that stronghold of small group improvisation and a book stocked with “the good old good ones,” but that also included saxophones, guitars and basses instead of banjos and tubas, and drummers who played with swing-band feel. Lesberg had friends from Boston equally at home in that style—Hackett, Max Kaminsky, Brad Gowans, Joe Dixon, and frequent section mate Buzzy Drootin.
Charlie Bourgeois, who was George Wein’s director of public relations and right-hand man for over 60 years, died at the age of 94 on January 26, but I’ve read very little about it. Bourgeois was active on the Boston jazz scene even before Wein hired him at Storyville in 1951. Two events in particular stand out.
The first was his staging of “a recital of contemporary music” at the John Hancock Hall in October 1949 with the trio of Mary Lou Williams and the sextet of Lennie Tristano, which included Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. It was Tristano’s first Boston appearance, and the concert program attempted to prepare the listeners for Tristano’s way-out music: “Tristano seeks optimum conditions and an intelligent audience for the performance of his music. It all may seem strange to the untrained ear but the music concepts that Tristano conveys may be assimilated by all who are eager to hear. Contemplation is required in the appreciation of any art.” Clearly, Bourgeois wasn’t sure that the Boston audience was as ready for the sound of modern jazz as he himself was.
January 1958: Life Is a Many Splendored Gig for the Pomeroy Band
In late January 1958, after what seemed to Bostonians like an interminable wait, Roulette Records released Life Is a Many Splendored Gig, the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra’s first album (Roulette R-52001), and January 30 was the date the local press first wrote about it.
John McLellan, in his twice-weekly Jazz Scene column in the Boston Traveler (oh, to have the luxury of a twice-weekly jazz column in a daily paper), summed it up in six words: “the whole album is a gas.”
In The Boston Jazz Chronicles, I wrote about this band being the high-water mark of Boston jazz in the 1950s, and this recording is the proof of it. The band swings and the soloists (especially Joe Gordon) are standouts, but I give extra credit to the arrangers—Pomeroy’s band had the reputation of a writers’ band, and they’re in evidence here. Band members Everett Longstreth and Boots Mussulli contributed two arrangements each, as did Pomeroy himself, and Jaki Byard and Ray Santisi each wrote one. Byard’s “Aluminum Baby” became the band’s most requested tune. Bob Freedman, who replaced Byard in the saxophone section in September 1957, also contributed a chart.