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.
Back in the States in 1940, Chittison accompanied singers (he was on Mildred Bailey’s classic “Old Rockin’ Chair” session) and worked as a soloist on 52nd Street. For eight years (1943-50) he was a regular on the Casey, Crime Photographer radio series. Chittison was Ernie, the piano player at the Blue Note Lounge, where Casey, the hard-boiled, crime-fighting photographer, would recount his adventures for the radio audience.
After years of leading trios in New York, Chittison arrived in Boston, and not too long after that, the Mayfair managers sought him out. They thought Herman would be perfect in the lounge. Not so fast, he said.
In an interview with John McLellan in March 1960, he noted that “Some clubs will spend $150,000 on decorations, and then they want to put in a $20 piano. They were going to put a spinet in here, but I asked them if they’d have their cook work on a two-burner stove. They got the point. And I got my piano.” He must have been persuasive, because that piano was a Mason & Hamlin concert grand.
McLellan, then hosting his Jazz Scene show on WHDH-TV, staged a notable reunion when Chittison and Louis Armstrong were guests on his May 4 program. The two recreated some of the music they had recorded in Paris in 1934. “There was no rehearsal,” McLellan wrote later. “Armstrong would just look at Chittison and say, ‘Let’s Do Confessin’,’ and he’d name a key. Off they’d go with “I’m Confessing That I Love You.”
Chittison played in the lounge, and Abby Lincoln, Cab Calloway, and other singles worked the big room in the back. (Trumpeter Al Natale led the house band, with Chick Corea his sometimes pianist.) But business was poor, and the name-band policy ended in May. Chittison returned to the Lenox that same month. By September, Mayfair was featuring belly dancers in a show called “Harem Delights,” and the club, which started as a swank nightspot in the last days of Prohibition, expired not long after.
Chittison was still working Boston lounges in spring 1961, but later that year he returned to New York, and a few years after that he moved to Cleveland. He died there, of lung cancer, in March 1967 at age 58.
Here’s Chittison in 1950, with a solo performance of “Memories of You.” It’s a pretty song, like the kind Fats Waller played all too infrequently.