The Troy Street Observer

Boston Jazz Chronicles, Blizzard Edition

Photo of traffic in snowstorm, 1967
Crawling on the Southeast Expressway, 1967

We in the Boston area in 2015 are saying “enough, already!” when it comes to the interminable cycle of snow-cold-snow-cold. I looked through the archives to see how the music fared on other cold and snowy nights, and found snapshots of 1943, 1958, 1967, and 1978.

Our first winter wonderland stop is Symphony Hall, where the Duke Ellington Orchestra performed Black, Brown, and Beige in its entirety on Jan 28, 1943. It was the second of only three complete performances of the 43-minute work, Duke’s “tone parallel to the history of the American Negro.” The critics had not been kind when the work premiered at Carnegie Hall the previous Saturday, and the press release let the people know it would be “serious jazz…with no comedy or capers,” but none of that deterred the Boston audience; it was standing room only and the box office turned away 1,200, all on a day when over a foot of snow blanketed the city.

Although Black, Brown, and Beige was received more warmly in Boston than in New York, the praise wasn’t unqualified. Wrote reviewer Eugene Benyas, “I can only report that Duke lived up to and confirmed all but the very highest expectations. If “B, B, and B” did not successfully bring jazz to the concert stage, it did not deny the existence of Ellington’s genius.” The most generous applause went to other pieces. Rex Stewart stopped the show with his solo on “Boy Meets Horn,” and Ray Nance played splendid violin on “Bakiff.”

The jazz might have been serious, but so was the snow. One person who was shut out at Symphony Hall told me she instead went around the corner to the movies, at the Uptown Theater, which was then next door to Horticultural Hall on Huntington Ave. She said it took one hour to walk in from her apartment in Roxbury, and almost four hours to walk back, over the uncleared streets and sidewalks.

The Blizzard of ‘58, which hit on Sunday, Feb 16 and lasted through Monday, Feb 17, left almost 20 inches of snow in the city, and is still counted among Boston’s top 10 snowfalls. The front-page headlines in the Record on the 17th tell the tale: “BLIZZARD! Thousands Lack Power; North, South Shore Tides Drive Scores From Homes; Abandoned Autos Litter Highways.” And on the 18th: “ZERO COLD TRAPS 2,100 IN 6 HUB TRAINS.”

Perhaps no one was thinking about jazz on nights like that, or perhaps no one other than George Wein at Storyville. Dinah Washington was to close on the 16th and Billy Taylor was to open on the 17th. Taylor’s trio didn’t make it. Perhaps Washington and her band worked another night—they were stuck here anyway—or perhaps George just shut down on the 17th, although he was normally a “show must go on” kind of guy. Taylor’s trio opened on the 18th.

What struck me in reading about this blizzard is how much more dangerous it was than our Blizzard of 2015. There were numerous storm-related fatalities. The death toll around the area by Feb 18 was 31, a number that definitely got my attention. It did not include the actor Stanley Bell, in Boston as part of the company performing Much Ado About Nothing at the Shubert. He jumped out of an 8th floor window at the Hotel Tourraine on the night of the 17th. Ado, starring Katherine Hepburn and directed by John Houseman, went on as scheduled.

I’m not sure how much snow fell on February 11, 1967, but shoveling it was probably the cause of the fatal heart attack suffered by clarinetist Edmond Hall, at his home in Cambridge. Hall’s career, which spanned four decades, was in decline at that point, but he was always welcome where the traditional approach to jazz held sway, for example at the nearby South Shore Jazz Festivals in Milton, and at Dick Gibson’s Colorado Jazz Parties. Hall had been a resident of Cambridge for about three years at the time of his death at age 65.

The Blizzard of ‘78 commenced on Sunday, Feb 5 and ended on Tuesday, Feb 7, dumping 27 inches of snow on the city. City life was slow to resume. Mae Arnette told me in a 2006 interview: “I was set to bring my show into Lulu White’s, but I was having a little trouble with the ownership, they wanted to make some cast changes to the show, and I was thinking of canceling. Then we had the big blizzard, and after a week people were going crazy, being housebound. Everybody wanted to go out again! And I talked to the owner, and he said “you can’t cancel, I’ve got reservations, for a party of ten, a party of twelve.” So we worked things out and we did the show and the place was packed. He had to go out for extra chairs. We sold out, had a line down Appleton Street. Peter Falk, Columbo, called, he couldn’t get in, he wanted a ticket. Everybody wanted a ticket. That was some show.”

Falk happened to be in Boston filming scenes for The Brink’s Job.

We’ll give the last word on Boston blizzards to Woody Herman, a frequent visitor to our town, who in 1945 sang, “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” for Columbia Records. The arrangement is by Neal Hefti, and the soloists are Sonny Berman and Bill Harris.

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