In January 1949, when Boston’s modern jazz pot was beginning to boil, the most popular jazzman in the clubs represented a different camp entirely. It was a Sidney Bechet disciple named Bob Wilber. Saxophonist and clarinetist Wilber, who died August 4, 2019 at age 91, was a frequent visitor to the Hub between late 1947 and late 1951. Those were critical years for Wilber, learning years, and he treated Boston’s Savoy Cafe as his personal woodshed. In 1949, Wilber was a near-constant presence at the Savoy, at a time when state law said he wasn’t even old enough to buy a beer there.
Bob Wilber studied intensively with Sidney Bechet in 1946-47, living in his home and recording with him. Then Sidney sent his pupil to Steve Connolly’s Savoy Cafe, where Bechet himself played a triumphant engagement in 1945. Wilber’s trio opened in November 1947. His high-school pal Dick Wellstood was on piano and the venerable Kaiser Marshall, himself a former Bostonian, played drums.
Wilber toured France in summer 1948 with Mezz Mezzrow, a trip that included an appearance at the Nice International Jazz Festival. In October he was back at the Savoy, with his best-known 1940s band: Henry Goodwin, trumpet; Jimmy Archey, trombone; Dick Wellstood, piano; Pops Foster, bass; and Tommy Benford, drums. This band packed the Savoy nightly. Connolly tore up their contract and announced they were staying indefinitely.
John Neves thought he was going to be a baseball player. He had the tools—agility, focus, strong arm, good hands. A gifted athlete at East Boston High School in the late 1940s, he starred as an all-city second baseman. After that, he played semipro ball around New England, then spent a season as a professional in 1951. He played in North Dakota, with the Fargo-Moorhead Twins, a minor league outpost in the Cleveland Indians system. His jersey number there, as it had been in East Boston, was a backwards 7. The man had a sense of humor!
John’s older brother, pianist and arranger Paul Neves, introduced John to the bass. John studied privately and played with Paul—but he played more baseball than bass in East Boston. Then came Fargo. And then came army service in the Korean War, where a back injury ended his dream of a baseball career. But he didn’t abandon the Old Ball Game completely—he was known as a fierce competitor when he played on Al Vega’s softball team in the 1950s. By that time, though, he was already a professional musician.
The Stable/Jazz Workshop Years
When Neves returned to East Boston in 1954, he focused on playing the bass at the Stable, the haven for modern jazz. It was a long streetcar and subway ride down to the Back Bay, but he did it to sit in with the trio there. Saxophonist Varty Haroutunian and pianist Ray Santisi knew a good thing when they heard it. They hired Neves, and the house trio became a quartet. It became a quintet when trumpeter Herb Pomeroy arrived.
Guitarist Don Alessi, once an ubiquitous presence on Boston’s music scene, was 100 years old when he died on Nov 3, 2018. His prolific career began in the 1940s and blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s. He was everywhere then—in clubs, on records, on radio and television. There was a time when it seemed like you could not pass a day living in Boston without hearing Alessi’s guitar somewhere.
Alessi was a jazz man at heart, but he played all styles of music in every imaginable setting. Fred Taylor told me that “Don was the utility infielder of Boston guitarists—whenever anybody came to Boston and needed a guitarist, they called Don Alessi. Any kind of music, he could play it.” On top of his daily radio and TV appearances, trio engagements, and studio work, he backed the likes of Sammy Davis Jr, Tony Bennett, and Jerry Vale. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Don Alessi owed his first big break to another Bostonian, the bandleader Vaughn Monroe. Monroe organized his first big band in 1940, and based it in Boston during the war years. During that time Alessi was working in the jazz spots around town. The photo of him here was taken at a jam session at the Hop Scotch Room, in the Copley Square Hotel, in 1944. Perhaps someone from Monroe’s band heard him there. Perhaps Vaughn himself did. Someone brought Alessi to Monroe’s attention, and when Bucky Pizzarelli, Monroe’s guitarist, entered the army in late 1944, Don Alessi replaced him. Monroe recorded some of his classic early sides during Alessi’s tenure, including “There, I’ve Said It Again” and “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” Pizzarelli resumed his career with Monroe after his discharge, and Alessi returned to Boston.
Paul Broadnax chuckled when I asked him to sign my copy of his LP, Introducing the Paul-Champ Three. “Now I know there are at least two people who have this record,” he said. “You, and me!” Broadnax, who died at age 92 on August 1, 2018, made that record in 1966. When I showed him my copy in 2014, he said it had been quite some time since he’d last seen one.
The Three were Paul Broadnax, piano and vocals; Champlin “Champ” Jones, bass and vocals; and Tony Sarni, drums. Broadnax and Jones shared arranging duties. The two first met in 1950, when Broadnax was writing arrangements for the Sabby Lewis Orchestra, and Jones joined as bassist. They started out as a duo in about 1960, and added Sarni on drums shortly after—there was more work for a trio. And they found plenty of it.
Something different on Troy Street this time—a jazz history guest post by Mark Harvey, Boston’s resident trumpeter, composer, teacher, leader of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, and all-around Jazz Hero. Mark mentioned to me that he had spoken with Claudio Roditi for the first time in some years, and that brought to mind the Harvey-Roditi Allstars, the band the two co-led in the mid 1970s.
Mark wrote the first version of this piece a a few years ago, and I asked if we could revive it here. He kindly agreed, so thank you to him, and here’s the story of the Harvey-Roditi Allstars in Mark’s own words.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.