It’s been four months since I last posted on this blog, and sometimes I get email from readers wondering what’s going on. I didn’t intend to stop writing, but a new project came along and it is taking most of my time—I’m working with Fred Taylor of Scullers Jazz Club on his autobiography. It’s an “as told to” book, and I’m honored to be the one he’s telling it to.
It’s quite a story—the Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall, the Great Woods Jazz and Blues Festival, the Harvard Square Theater, the Tanglewood Jazz Festival, Scullers, and hundreds of concerts, benefits, and shows… And of course it’s a story of people, Bostonians as well as national figures in jazz, pop and comedy. There are stories, or parts of stories, in general circulation, for instance regarding Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. But everybody’s in here. Take the name “George.” So far we’ve talked about Wein, Benson, Shearing, Carlin, Winston, Garzone, Coleman, Frazier, and Duke. I suspect we’ll be getting to Russell, Colligan, Schuller and Duvivier.
So here’s the pitch. If you’ve known Fred for a while, or if you’ve worked with him in one of his many ventures, please leave a comment here, or send me a message. Fred’s story isn’t just the story told by Fred, it’s also the stories about Fred that I hear from other people.
In the late afternoon on Dec 31, 1951, a soldier from Fort Devens got an early start on his New Year’s celebrations by taking a joyride through the Boston subway system. In a Buick. Entering by way of the portal on Huntington Avenue, the soldier drove for almost a half mile before getting hung up on a switch, which is where a press photographer snapped this photo of the car.
This of course completely blocked the inbound Arborway line; some 40 trolleys piled up behind him before the car was finally removed from the tracks. It had to be pushed or towed to the Mechanics (now Prudential) station and lifted on to the platform.
The soldier’s motives remain a mystery. Perhaps he had been down at Izzy Ort’s or the Silver Dollar Bar enjoying a few afternoon beers and decided to go for a drive, and got confused, mistaking the portal for the entrance to the Sumner Tunnel.
Come the month of March, all New England is yearning for the warmer southern winds. One year, however, our balmy breeze was a musical one. Metronome magazine, in March 1950, referred to the Soft Winds as the group with the “zephyrous cognomen,” which probably prompted more than one reader to consult the dictionary. But “zephyrous” was an apt word, because the group’s quiet swing was mild and breezy, and from June 1949 to December 1951, that zephyr soothed Boston. Later, as a duo, the Soft Winds refreshed Boston again, in 1953 and 1955.
Guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist John Frigo, and pianist Lou Carter formed the postwar rhythm section in the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, but when Dorsey furloughed the band in 1947, they set out on their own as the John Carlis Trio. They modeled themselves after Nat Cole’s group. As the Soft Winds, they arrived in Boston in June 1949. By then Frigo had written his most famous song, “Detour Ahead.”
The Soft Winds were the perfect group for the Darbury Room, an upscale club downstairs at 271 Dartmouth Street, just off Newbury Street. They had that quiet, just-right swing: “We had that Shearing sound before Shearing did!” said Frigo.
Dec 31: On the Town, Boston Jazz Chronicles Edition
Last week I watched Alastair Sim as Scrooge in the 1951 film, A Christmas Carol, and seeing poor Scrooge dragged through the years on Christmas night gave me the idea to do something similar for my New Year’s Eve post. So here, without any guiding ghosts, is a look at New Year’s Eve past, Boston Jazz Chronicles style.
December 31, 1936… Bobby Hackett with Brad Gowans at the Theatrical Club, the residence that put Hackett on the national stage… 1938: The first Boston visit of Les Brown and His Band of Renown, at the Raymor Ballroom on Huntington Avenue… 1942: Drummer Alan Dawson’s first gig, with Tasker Crosson’s Ten Statesmen, at the U.S.O. on Ruggles Street…
1943: Fletcher Henderson at the Tic Toc, Ray Perry at the Ken Club, Phil Edmunds and Mabel Robinson at Little Dixie, Sabby Lewis and George Irish at the Savoy Cafe, Georgie Auld at the Raymor. Need to rest? The Gayety Theatre is showing Reveille With Beverly, starring Ann Miller and every name band you can think of.
Billy Eckstine and his orchestra opened at the Rio Casino for two weeks on December 8, 1946, and on Saturday the 14th, they were playing to a packed house. All went well until the end of the second show, just before closing. Boston’s blue laws required all nightclubs to close at midnight on Saturday to honor the Sabbath, and Eckstine was wrapping up for the night. That’s when the trouble started.
I’ve read two different accounts of what happened next, one in Nat Hentoff’s Counterpoint newsletter and the other in the Jan 15, 1947 issue of Down Beat. They differ in details but agree on the main points: someone in the crowd insulted Eckstine; some of the crowd and some of the band pushed and shoved; and the Rio announced that it would no longer book black bands.
First the insult. Yes, it was the n-word, and it was hurled at Eckstine when he said he could not play any more requests because of the imminent closing time. In one account, the guilty party was a woman, and in the other it was her companion. Either way, Eckstine cut the music and left the stage to confront the couple. The guy kicked Eckstine, who flattened him, and “flattened” is the verb both accounts used.
The Down Beat Club, upstairs at 245 Tremont Street in the Theatre District, had a regrettably short life, but nonetheless played a role in establishing modern jazz in Boston.
In late 1947, Boston’s music schools were filled with veterans studying on the GI Bill, and its commercial dance bands were populated by out-of-work big-band musicians. Many in both camps were looking for new directions in jazz, and were still talking about Dizzy Gillespie’s October concert at Symphony Hall, his “Program of the New Jazz.” Now the musicians needed a place to play this music, but Boston’s bastion of jazz, the Savoy, was more interested in older styles than new directions. The Down Beat Club filled that need, at least for a short while.
Nov 14 1955: Hamilton Sets Box Office Record at the Hi-Hat
What was happening at the Hi-Hat? In the first half of 1955, it was still Boston’s House of Jazz, presenting, among others, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, and Max Roach and Clifford Brown. After the summer shutdown, though, it was almost as if it were a different club.
October started with Mel Torme, followed by the doo-wop group The Stylers, and then pop singer Sunny Gale. Next came guitarist Tiny Grimes and His Rockin’ Highlanders, an R&B outfit who performed in kilts, on an unusual bill with singer Jeri Southern. Then came the venerable R&B band of Steve Gibson and the Red Tops with singer Damita Jo.
Metronome didn’t like it, lamenting that the Hi-Hat was now featuring the likes of Tiny Grimes, a onetime jazz guitarist playing in a band “with funny hats and blue jokes.” The Harvard Crimson, which then followed jazz closely, also complained that the club had abandoned good jazz in favor of singers and R&B bands with semi-jazz overtones.
Nov 8, 1936: Waller Says the Joint’s Officially Jumpin’
Fats Waller was in town, headlining the Hot From Harlem Revue opening at the RKO-Boston Theatre on November 6. The Hot From Harlem stage show played Boston annually with its cast of dancers, singers, comedians, and musicians supporting the show’s headlining star.
We can assume that the ebullient Waller played hits like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and probably introduced a few new songs, too. A party atmosphere likely prevailed among the RKO-Boston crowd, because FDR had been re-elected by a landslide just two days before Fats opened.
But Hot From Harlem isn’t my reason for checking in with Mr. Waller today. I’m interested in the Theatrical Club, on Tremont Street in the Theatre District, and Waller’s role in ending its Jim Crow policy. (more…)
Oct 24–Nov 2, 1955: Miles Davis Quintet at the 5 O’Clock
It’s funny how the size of the crowd at a momentous event seems to swell over time. Sports crowds fill facilities well beyond their capacities; I’ve lost track of the number of Bostonians who insist they saw Orr score The Goal or Fisk hit The Home Run. Music fans aren’t immune, either. Seems like half the city was at Boston Garden for the April 1968 James Brown show that stopped a riot.
This brings me to Boston jazz fans of a certain age, all of whom insist they heard the Miles Davis Quintet between October 24 and November 2, 1955. The Quintet played at the 5 O’Clock, a long and narrow room on Huntington Avenue about a block away from Storyville, where the Westin Hotel is now, during its brief foray into name-band jazz. The management called the club Jazzarama then, “the greatest ‘Rama of them all.”
This blog has visited the 5 O’Clock before, to mark the Boston marriage of beat poetry and jazz. But that was 1958, a few years after Jazzarama.