Don Stratton’s Boston Jazz Scene, 1949
Trumpeter, composer and educator Don Stratton, a true Yankee original, died at his home in Augusta, Maine, on April 24, 2016. I got to know Don ten years ago when I interviewed him for The Boston Jazz Chronicles, and we stayed in touch afterwards. He was a source of countless insights and anecdotes, and I always enjoyed our conversations.
Don was active professionally on the Boston scene from 1945 to 1951, and he was enormously helpful in providing information on those years. For much of that time he lived close to the center of the jazz scene, at Mass Ave and Columbus, and he knew every important musician, black and white, in Boston in those years. This post, based on our conversations in 2005-06, recount that time in Don’s life.
Donald Paul Stratton was born in 1928 in Reading, Mass, just north of Boston. He started playing trumpet at age 10, and the jazz bug bit him early—he liked Harry James in those big-band years—and he was gigging at 14. At 16, Don joined the Boston local of the musicians union, and he was a senior in high school when he joined the band of guitarist Whitney Cronin. There he got the biggest jolt of his young musical life, courtesy of Dizzy Gillespie.
“We were playing a dance date in Boston, at the Uptown Ballroom. I was a senior in high school, so that would make it late 1945 or early 1946. Dizzy and Sonny Stitt were in town, and Whitney went to where they were working, and asked Dizzy if he’d sit in with our band. And Dizzy came! “Just let me play some parts,” he said. I was in awe. I couldn’t sit next to him. I was so awed I got off the bandstand and watched. He dropped a cigarette on the floor, and I picked up the butt and saved it for years.”
In September 1946, the Cronin group took on a new front man, a former Stan Kenton trumpeter named Ray Borden. There were personnel changes; Cronin himself left, and joining Stratton in the brass section were trumpeter Buddy Hartford, previously with Charlie Barnet, and the man Don credited as his first mentor, and trombonist John Melick, later the principal trombonist with the Baltimore Symphony from 1951 to 1966. The band recorded four demo sides but nothing happened with them. One was memorable for Don, though—their “Perdido” included his first solo on wax.
Stratton left the Borden band about the time that Nat Pierce joined as pianist and arranger. When he rejoined the band in 1949, Borden was gone and it was called the Nat Pierce Orchestra.
Waiting for Trains with Cecil Taylor
Stratton entered the New England Conservatory in 1947, and a year later moved to an apartment in Boston that was near the school and the jazz scene centered around the corner of Massachusetts and Columbus avenues. Between the Conservatory, gigs with guys from the Borden band, and the jam sessions at Wally’s Paradise and the Hi-Hat, he was completely immersed in the Boston jazz scene.
Don did not graduate from the New England Conservatory, but he always valued his time there because of the people he met. One fellow student who particularly impressed him was Cecil Taylor. “Cecil and I were subway friends. We would ride together to North Station, and he would go his way and I would go mine. But we had many in-depth conversations in transit. Cecil was the first person I met who didn’t think Count Basie was so hot, who challenged me with, “why Basie?” He made me aware that there was more out there, that I wasn’t reaching as far as I could.”
“There was a noontime session at the New England Conservatory then, where any student could present a program, and Cecil put one together. I didn’t know what Cecil was doing musically; I knew him as my subway buddy and classmate in ear training, so I went. I can’t remember anyone else in the group. They played “Indiana,” and I’d never heard anything like it. I thought, “Jesus what’s going on?” I had no idea, and I considered myself to be pretty much on top of it, but of course I wasn’t. Cecil was flying around the piano. He was amazing. Afterwards I saw Quincy Jones—he was a student at Schillinger House then—and I asked him what it was all about, and he said, “I have no idea.” I’ve always remembered that. Cecil had Quincy guessing, too.”
Boston was a significant incubator of jazz talent in the late forties and early fifties. Cecil Taylor and Quincy Jones and Nat Pierce were around, but others in Don’s musical world included Jaki Byard, Charlie Mariano, Gigi Gryce, Sam Rivers, Joe Gordon (to whom Don gave reading lessons, with limited success), Lennie Johnson, Dick Twardzik, Serge Chaloff, Frankie Newton, and Gene Caines, the trumpeter and arranger with the Sabby Lewis band. He studied with John Coffey and learned about Ives from Nicolas Slonimsky. It was a vibrant scene.
One friend of Don’s merits a special mention—Sumner “Sonny” Truitt, a composer, arranger, pianist, trombonist, and singer. Truitt and Stratton were frequent bandmates in Boston and New York, and lifelong friends. Sonny was the best man at Don’s wedding in 1951. “A fascinating guy, and he played everything well. He played with Miles Davis. He played with Bob Wilber. He could fit in with anybody.”
In 1949, a Boston contingent that included Stratton, Truitt, pianist Roy Frazee, trombonist Joe Ciavardone, bassist Roy Shain, and singer Roz Wise went on the road with Tommy Reynolds and his “New Sounds” orchestra. They worked all along the east coast, as far south as Atlanta and as far north as Old Orchard Beach in Maine. While in Atlanta, during an eight-week residence at the Hotel Ansley, some of the band went to a black jazz club one night and the club owner tried to throw them out. When he learned Stratton and friends were musicians, he relented—they could stay but he wouldn’t sell them a drink. It would be very bad, he explained, to have anything “happen.” Such was life on the road in the south in 1949.
With Nat Pierce: Musically Advanced, Thoroughly Unemployed
After Tommy Reynolds, Stratton and Truitt joined the Nat Pierce Orchestra in late 1949. They rented rooms at 454 Mass Ave, one door down from the Hi-Hat. Pierce lived next door, at 458. The two rooming houses were owned by the same landlady, Mrs. Coste, who was fond of musicians and rented most of her rooms to them. Stratton and Truitt were on the top floor with trumpeter Roy Caton (later of Wrecking Crew fame) and trombonist Frank “Ace” Lane, both members of the Pierce band. “We’d play trumpet quartets up there, and trombone trios, and be going all day long. The landlady would get complaints from the neighbors, but she’d just say, “They have to practice, these boys are artists, and you’ll just have to put up with it. She was great!” Musicians and their friends were coming and going at all hours, and Nat Pierce wrote and recorded “Pad 458” (Crystal-Tone 524) to celebrate the place.
The Nat Pierce Orchestra never broke through. It was, as Nat Hentoff wrote in Down Beat, “the city’s most musically advanced and most thoroughly unemployed band.” Stratton took other jobs as he found them. He worked college dances with the nonet of trombonist Chick Hathaway, traveling to jobs in Chick’s “band bus,” actually an old laundry delivery truck. There were dates with Mal Hallett, the bandleader who came to prominence in the 1920s and was still hanging on with a part-time band in 1950. He played with Victor Lombardo, Guy’s youngest brother, in 1950. And he worked in Boston’s most notorious dives, places like Izzy Ort’s with Charlie Mariano, the Village Barn, and the New Ritz Cafe—sometimes for no money at all, just to have a place to play.
Paydays were few, and Don knew what to do when he had one. “With Nat’s band, we played a weekend at the Symphony Ballroom, and I think I made maybe eleven dollars for two nights. We got paid on Saturday night. There was a Chinese restaurant on Mass Ave on my way home, and I went in and put the eleven dollars on the table, and said, “bring me food until that’s gone.” And I ate all of it. It was not healthy eating.”
It was a struggle to make a living as a musician in Boston, and if it weren’t for the Pierce band, Don would have moved to New York in 1950. Stratton contributed to the Pierce band’s book and was on its best recordings, and he was part of a core group that included Truitt and Mariano who believed in the band and stayed to the end, in 1951. They were inactive for a long stretch that year, and Pierce himself bowed to the inevitable and joined the Woody Herman Orchestra in October, replacing Dave McKenna. There was never a formal break up. The band just died in its sleep.
Stratton and Truitt hit the road too, with Dean Hudson in late 1951. While he was with Hudson, Don relocated to New York. “My rent with Mrs. Coste was four dollars a week for a furnished room, and even with that I managed to accumulate a debt of about eighty dollars. When I got my first job on the road, with the Dean Hudson band, I sent back ten dollars a week until it was paid off.”
Stratton was debt-free when he went to New York, and that’s where we’ll pick up this story next time.
To the music. A few years after arriving in New York, Don was part of a recording project called Cool Gabriels, which featured seven trumpeters playing in various combinations. Here is Don, featured on “Five O’Clock Shadow.”