In April 1974, trombone players of all musical persuasions gathered for the second Boston Sackbut Week, the brainchild of local stalwarts Tom Everett, Phil Wilson, and Tom Plsek. One of the Big Deals of 1974 was the April 30 debut of “God’s Trombones,” a work composed by Richard Allen and performed as part of the annual Berklee Spring Concert.
The Berklee Performance Center did not open until 1976, so for this concert the college rented the New England Life Hall on Clarendon Street, a space that was closed in 2005.
“God’s Trombones” featured the Berklee Jazz Trombone Ensemble and Wilson’s Thursday Night Dues Band, plus guest soloist Carl Fontana. “God’s Trombones” was written with Fontana in mind, and he plays the voice of God throughout the work. Fontana in 1974 was making a very good living in Las Vegas, and jetting to occasional jazz jobs across the country.
Billie Holiday opened her last engagement in Boston on April 20, 1959, at Storyville. For Holiday, who had not worked in Boston for three-and-a-half years, it was a triumphant return.
I believe Holiday first came to the Hub in August 1937 with Basie’s band, singing at the Ritz Roof. She made history here in March 1938 when she joined the Artie Shaw Orchestra at the Roseland-State Ballroom. The 1940s are dotted with Holiday appearances, but Boston was really reintroduced to her in February 1951, during a ten-day engagement at the Latin Quarter.
Boston in 1951 had the Hi-Hat and Storyville competing for jazz talent. Holiday, who had lost her cabaret card, could not work in the New York clubs, so the Boston situation was to her advantage—between 1951 and 1955, she worked week-long engagements at Storyville five times and at the Hi-Hat four. The last was in October 1955, and although she sang at the North Shore Jazz Festival in Lynn in 1957, she wasn’t seen in Boston again until April 1959. On this visit, her accompanist, Mal Waldron, was joined by bassist Champ Jones and drummer Roy Haynes.
The days approaching Tax Day have sometimes been troubled ones for Boston’s jazz clubs. Take the Willow, for instance. On March 27, 1997 the Willow Jazz Club in Somerville was padlocked. The owner was in serious legal trouble and the city closed him down.
On April 14, 1960, John McLellan, in his Jazz Scene column in the Boston Traveler, quoted a letter written by Storyville owner George Wein. The club had shut down for five weeks that spring, its first in-season closure, and was to reopen April 11. Wrote Wein: “If Storyville is successful, or even moderately successful, in this six-week period, then we will go ahead with some plans for the fall. If business is as dismal as it has been all winter, then I don’t know what the future of Storyville will be.” There wasn’t enough business. Wein turned out the lights on May 22, and closed his club.
It’s time to mark a centennial. Everett G. Earl was born on April 10, 1914, in Corona, Queens, and years later he said he couldn’t recall a time when he wasn’t playing the piano. He was mainly self-taught but he had big ears; he grew up in the New York City of James P. Johnson and Willie the Lion, and by age 13 he knew enough stride piano to play at rent parties and YMCA dances.
By age 17 Earl was already on the road, traveling as far west as St. Louis on the RKO Theatre circuit. During his Boston stops, he stayed at the Railway Club on Yarmouth Street, a combination rooming house and speakeasy, where the jazz was quite good. In 1933, the Railway Club asked Earl to stay on as the resident piano man, and he did—thus becoming one of the first, if not the first, jazz musician to move from New York to Boston rather than the other way around. In 1934 Earl joined Joe Nevils’s Alabama Aces, and after that went to Eddie Levine’s nightclub, Little Harlem, on Mass Ave.
In 1936 Earl organized an eight-piece group to work at Little Harlem. Its members included Ray Perry, doubling on reeds and violin; alto saxist Jackie Fields, who in 1939 would play on the legendary “Body and Soul” recording of Coleman Hawkins; and bassist Slam Stewart, then a student at the Boston Conservatory. “The Boston musicians liked to play with me because I had that New York feel,” Earl later recalled.
It was welcome news indeed for lovers of the big sound of the baritone sax: Serge Chaloff was back. “Serge, for years one of music’s more chaotic personalities, has made an about face of late and is again flying right. It is evident in his playing, which…has become a thing of real beauty.” So began Jack Tracy’s Down Beat review (Oct 5, 1955) of Boston Blow-Up!, the recording made by the Serge Chaloff Sextet on April 4-5, 1955.
“Chaotic”…others used harsher words to describe Chaloff. Serge had been a junkie since the mid-forties, and although he played splendid saxophone with Georgie Auld, Woody’s Second Herd, and his own groups in early-fifties Boston, by 1954 he had no room left to run. He voluntarily entered the rehab program at Bridgewater (Mass.) State Hospital to put an end to his years of addiction.
Chaloff emerged from Bridgewater in early 1955, and one of the first to help Chaloff reestablish himself was the disk jockey Bob “The Robin” Martin, who negotiated a recording contract with Capitol Records as part of the “Stan Kenton Presents” series. Later in the year Martin arranged Chaloff’s guest appearance on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show.