Boston-born Floyd Williams had a long career in jazz, first as a musician and then as an educator. In his home town, the drummer was known by his nickname, “Floogie.” No one around now knows how he got it. Later in his career, people knew him as Floyd Williams.
His Boston story is an intriguing one. As with many artists of past decades who did not achieve great stardom in New York, there are facts about his story we don’t know. We do know he attended Boston public schools, started on piano as a boy, switched to the drums, gigged with friends while still at Roxbury High School, and studied briefly at the New England Conservatory. I have read that Johnny Hodges was his godfather, and I am still looking into that.
Legendary godfather or not, Floogie Williams earned his own recognition as a drummer in the late 1940s, at a time when Boston was incubating an exciting brand of modern jazz. The numerous G.I. Bill students at the music schools were mixing with the local musicians in the clubs clustered around Mass Ave and Columbus Ave. Disc jockey Symphony Sid Torin called this intersection “the jazz corner of Boston.” Williams was a regular on the bandstand at the Sunnyside Cafe, where he worked with saxophonists Sam Rivers and Gigi Gryce. He also played occasionally in the big band of Jimmie Martin, where he met trumpeters Joe Gordon and Lennie Johnson, and Jaki Byard—who played trombone!
In the 1970s, Bostonians enjoyed a welcome one-night respite from their long winter blues: the Jazz All Night Concert. This twelve-hour music marathon, held in February at the Church of the Covenant in the Back Bay, brought the jazz congregation together for a night of great music during some difficult and racially charged years.
The Jazz Coalition was the organizing force behind the Jazz All Night concert. Formed in July 1971, this non-profit advocacy group had two goals. The first was pragmatic: to help area musicians find places to play. The second was more ambitious: to bring together like-minded souls in a “jazz community”—a new idea in Boston in 1971. It called on musicians, educators, the media, venue owners, fans—everybody—to come together to create an atmosphere in which jazz could be respected and sustained.
Two of the Jazz Coalition’s founders and prime movers remain as pillars of the Boston jazz scene today: Mark Harvey and Arni Cheatham.
A number of readers commented on my Dick Johnson Reprise post from a few weeks back, and I’m happy to see that level of enduring interest in Dick and his music. I received some of the comments via email. One of those emailers, Hal Galper, worked with Dick in the early 1960s in his Boston days. I believe they served together in Herb Pomeroy’s big band then. Wrote Hal, “I worked many a gig with Dick—always a sweetheart,” and he included one of his favorite memories of Dick Johnson on the job:
One gig was in a Boston club we all thought was run by the mob, don’t remember which one. We’re playing a tune and this expensively dressed gal comes up to the bandstand. “Guido wants to hear Moonlight In Vermont,” she says in a Chelsea accent, and walks away. Dick ignores her completely, continues to solo uninterrupted. About ten minutes later she returns. “Guido wants to hear Moonlight In Vermont,” she says, adding a little more emphasis to the request, and walks away again. Dick ignores her and keeps on playing. About ten minutes later, we’re playing another tune and this big, ugly, pock-marked, cauliflower-eared guy in a $500 silk suit lumbers up to the bandstand. In a rough, mean-toned, gravely voice he says, “Guido wants to hear Moonlight In Vermont,” and stands there staring at us. Dick takes an instantaneous segue: Moonlight in Vermont!
By the way, that guy was not Guido. We never did see him.
When I first started writing The Boston Jazz Chronicles, the clarinetist, saxophonist and bandleader Dick Johnson was one of the first jazz artists to take me under his wing. I knew very little about the history of Boston jazz when I embarked on that project, and I needed help. Johnson’s music is one of the reasons I became a jazz fan in the first place, and it was a pleasure to meet him. He was affable and down-to-earth as well as knowledgeable, and we talked often.
Dick Johnson died on January 10, 2010, and it’s become my custom to remember him around that date each year by listening to a few of his recordings. This year I pulled out his 1958 Riverside release, Most Likely; his self-produced and sadly out-of-print CD Artie’s Choice! from 2004; and my personal favorite, Swing Shift, released by Concord Jazz in 1981. This one is out of print, too. Shame on you, Concord.
Come to think of it, Dick Johnson recorded eight albums as a leader, and most are unavailable:
Andy McGhee was back in Boston in fall 1966, off the road after three years of bus rides with Woody Herman’s orchestra. Count Basie heard he was available and offered him a job, but McGhee declined. McGhee, with a family to support, wanted to stay home.
Fortunately, a door opened for McGhee, and the man holding it was Lawrence Berk. It was the door at 1140 Boylston Street, the brand-new home of the Berklee School (not yet college) of Music. Just inside that door was McGhee’s old friend from the late 1940s, Charlie Mariano.
Back in the day—no, even before that—there was a rowdy saloon on the corner of Stuart and Tremont streets, in Boston’s Theatre District, called the Knickerbocker Cafe. This was in the early 1950s, and the Knickerbocker was a favorite of the hordes of sailors from the Navy Yard who flooded the Theatre District nightly. They liked it because the club had a great house band, Fat Man Robinson’s quintet (later expanded to sextet), and one of its stars was the tenor saxophonist Andy McGhee.
McGhee, who died October 12, 2017 at age 89, came to Boston in 1945 to attend the New England Conservatory. He studied with Sam Marcus, a saxophonist and dance band leader, and later the president of AFM Local 9. McGhee graduated from the NEC Diploma Program in 1949. The comment accompanying his photo in his senior class yearbook read, “Will be on the road and with a first-rate band before you know it!”
In later years, McGhee downplayed his activity outside of school, but he was among the galaxy of future jazz stars around town in the late 1940s, a cluster that included Jaki Byard, Charlie Mariano, Sam Rivers, and Joe Gordon. McGhee logged time in the big bands of fellow student Bernard Moore, Roxbury pianist Hopeton Johnson, and finally the fabled Boston Beboppers of Jimmie Martin.
The adventurous guitarist and composer John Abercrombie couldn’t get enough of the organ trio. He had a lifelong love affair with them, starting in Boston in 1967, and he had trio dates scheduled at the time of his death on August 22, 2017. This post surveys those Boston beginnings and his ongoing enthusiasm for the jazz organ.
Boston was where Abercrombie soaked up influences and interests that stayed with him for decades. He spent eight formative years there, from 1962 to 1970, and his attraction to organ trios took hold then. He took his first steps on the national stage in one in 1967.
Although he was a student at Berklee, Abercrombie was quite active on the local scene. He used the city as one big woodshed. He played big band music with Phil Wilson’s Dues Band, sambas with the Bossa Nova Quartet of saxophonist Allan Rowe, and lounge jazz with Al Natalie’s Tijuana Sounds group. His roommate, Jan Hammer, played keyboards in a strip club, and Abercrombie sat in with him there. He graduated from Berklee in 1967, but he acquired his practical education playing across the musical landscape of 1960s Boston.
In early spring 1958, Joe Gordon abruptly left Boston for California. His last known date with Herb Pomeroy was March 18. The story has it that he stopped by the Stable to tell Pomeroy he was leaving town, and he left that same night. Allegedly Joe owed a drug dealer money, was told “pay up or else,” and fled. It might be true, it might not, but the story conforms to the generally accepted Gordon narrative.
Gordon was strung out when he arrived in Los Angeles, but he found work with the help of drummer Shelly Manne, who became one of Gordon’s strongest supporters on the West Coast. Joe gigged with Dexter Gordon and Hampton Hawes among others. He also married Irma, whom he’d known in Boston, after arriving in L.A., and he later named one of his better-known tunes for her, “Terra Firma Irma.”
Joe Gordon replaced Clifford Brown in Art Blakey’s pre-Messengers group in early 1954. That band, with alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce, pianist Walter Bishop, Jr. and bassist Bernie Griggs, recorded the album Blakey for EmArcy in May. Gordon stayed with Blakey for about six months.
In September, with Blakey, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, pianist Junior Mance, and bassist Jimmy Schenck, Joe recorded for the first time as a leader, also for EmArcy. The album, a 10-inch LP, was titled Introducing Joe Gordon.
The album’s reviews were mixed. Down Beat’s Nat Hentoff praised it (April 6, 1955), writing: “Gordon, though still a little unsteady…unleashes a power and a comet-like imagination that heralds one of the exciting newer voices of the year…All in all, a bracing sample of somewhat raw but always moving jazz.”
Trumpeter Joe Gordon was only 35 when he died in 1963, and he was in and out of the limelight during his too-brief career. Relatively little is known about him, and it seems like the same few biographical sentences copied from The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz appear on website after website. With the anniversary of his birth approaching, I thought it was time to dig deeper into Gordon’s history.
Part 1 of this three-part post covers Joe’s early years, mainly spent in Boston, and stops in 1953, the year Joe met Clifford Brown. Part 2 covers his hard bop and big band years, from 1954 with Art Blakey to his flight to West Coast in 1958. Part 3 covers his final years in California, ending with the tragic fire that killed him in 1963.
Gordon’s was an original and confident voice, and writers such as Nat Hentoff, John Tynan and John S. Wilson noted with approval his big sound, clean, articulate attack, and creative solos brimming with ideas. In terms of influences, Joe himself said: “I always seem to have liked Miles’ melodic thing with Dizzy’s drive, but actually it would be hard to say which one of the trumpet players I did follow. I always seemed to have a scope wide enough to employ everyone’s style.”