The Troy Street Observer

Andy McGhee and Could It Be

Visit Andy McGhee Part 1

Photo of Andy McGhee in the late 1970s
Andy McGhee, late 1970s

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.

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Andy McGhee: Rockin’ with the Fat Man

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.

Photo of Andy McGhee, 1949
Andy McGhee’s NEC yearbook picture, 1949

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.

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Mar 5, 1974: A Memorial Concert for Lennie Johnson

“Nobody in the capacity house at John Hancock Hall could see him, of course, but you can wager your paycheck that Lennie Johnson was sitting in last night for that all-star gig they threw in his memory.”

Photo of Lennie Johnson and Herb Pomeroy-1970
Lennie Johnson and Herb Pomeroy, 1970. Photo Berklee College of Music

So began Ernie Santosuosso’s review in the Boston Globe on March 6, 1974, the morning after the concert.

Johnson had been an instructor at Berklee for about five years at the time of his death in October 1973, and Berklee sponsored the concert, the biggest of the 1973-74 school year, and colleagues galore turned out to participate. Berklee had no large hall of its own (the Berklee Performance Center did not open until 1976), so whenever the school needed an auditorium, it rented the 1,100-seat John Hancock Hall.

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July 31, 1949: Jimmie Martin Orchestra at the Rio Casino

Label of Motif M 2003
Mamie Thomas and the Jimmie Martin Orchestra on Motif, 1949

I dedicated a chapter of The Boston Jazz Chronicles to Boston’s two late 1940s big bands, the “white contingent” of Nat Pierce (in the blog on July 5 and July 16) and the “black contingent” of Jimmie Martin.

The bands had much in common—passionate and talented musicians, skilled arrangers, and a decidedly modern outlook. Unfortunately, they also shared a mostly empty schedule, and if the Pierce band only worked a little, the Martin band worked a little less. In what little mention the Martin band merits in the jazz literature, it is often called a rehearsal band.

Some members of Martin’s orchestra became household names, at least in jazz households—Jaki Byard, Joe Gordon, Gigi Gryce, Lennie Johnson, Sam Rivers. Some, while not household names, were quite influential. Trombonist and arranger Hampton Reese was B.B. King’s music director for almost 25 years in the 1950s-1970s, and trumpeter Gil Askey, who had the same role with Diana Ross, was one of the founding fathers of the Motown Sound. Still others were active sidemen on the national scene (Jack Jeffers, Clarence Johnston), or doubled as performers and educators (Andy McGhee, Floogie Williams).
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On May 28, 1966…

Berklee School logoThe Berklee School of Music awarded its first bachelor of music degrees to a graduating class, another sign that Lawrence Berk’s little music school was a major player in music education.

In 1963, the Berklee School of Music announced the formation of its degree program, and that students entering that fall could opt for a bachelor of music degree in addition to the professional diploma program already in place. Berklee would offer degrees in music education, composition, and performance.

In 1966, the first graduating class assembled at the New England Life Hall on May 28 for Berklee’s first commencement exercises. Sixteen students were granted bachelor’s degrees, thirteen in music education and three in composition. The commencement address was delivered by Roland Nadeau, author and chairman of the Music Department at Northeastern University. A concert bash followed the graduation ceremony—would we expect anything less?—with the Berklee Trombone Ensemble led by Phil Wilson, and William Maloof’s student concert orchestra.

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Ain’t Misbehavin’ Comes to Boston

Ain’t Misbehavin,’ the revue based on the music of Fats Waller, opened at the Wilbur Theatre on February 28, 1979. Ain’t Misbehavin’ ran for over 1,600 performances on Broadway, winning the Tony award for Best Musical in 1978. Within weeks of its closing, the touring company, with Yvette Freeman leading the cast, set off to its first stop in Boston. The show included more than 25 tunes Waller wrote or played, including “The Jitterbug Waltz,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.”

Ain't Misbehavin' Poster
1979 Ain’t Misbehavin’ Poster

There was a fine local band on hand to play Wallers music:  trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, Andy McGhee and Dick Johnson on reeds, trombonist Kenny Wenzel, bassist John Neves, and drummer Rudy Collins. The show’s pianist and musical director was J. Leonard Oxley.

Waller was a frequent visitor to Boston, at nightclubs of the late thirties and early forties like the Tic Toc and Southland. He also starred in stage shows at the RKO-Boston that were the inspiration for Ain’t Misbehavin,’ such as the Connie’s Inn Revue and the Hot From Harlem Revue, both from 1936. It was during the run of the latter show that Waller made the momentous appearance at the Theatrical Club that I described in The Boston Jazz Chronicles.

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