It’s time to mark a centennial. Everett G. Earl was born on April 10, 1914, in Corona, Queens, and years later he said he couldn’t recall a time when he wasn’t playing the piano. He was mainly self-taught but he had big ears; he grew up in the New York City of James P. Johnson and Willie the Lion, and by age 13 he knew enough stride piano to play at rent parties and YMCA dances.
By age 17 Earl was already on the road, traveling as far west as St. Louis on the RKO Theatre circuit. During his Boston stops, he stayed at the Railway Club on Yarmouth Street, a combination rooming house and speakeasy, where the jazz was quite good. In 1933, the Railway Club asked Earl to stay on as the resident piano man, and he did—thus becoming one of the first, if not the first, jazz musician to move from New York to Boston rather than the other way around. In 1934 Earl joined Joe Nevils’s Alabama Aces, and after that went to Eddie Levine’s nightclub, Little Harlem, on Mass Ave.
In 1936 Earl organized an eight-piece group to work at Little Harlem. Its members included Ray Perry, doubling on reeds and violin; alto saxist Jackie Fields, who in 1939 would play on the legendary “Body and Soul” recording of Coleman Hawkins; and bassist Slam Stewart, then a student at the Boston Conservatory. “The Boston musicians liked to play with me because I had that New York feel,” Earl later recalled.
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.”
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.
June 25, 1920: Happy Birthday to Joe Viola, Master of Reeds
Joe Viola was both an exemplary educator and a superb woodwind player. He was highly respected on both counts, and his many friends remember him warmly.
Viola’s apprenticeship as a saxophonist started in his home town, the Boston suburb of Malden, with his older brother, saxophonist Tony, who took Joe on jobs while he was still in high school. Joe turned professional after graduation, and got on his first name band in 1938, when he replaced Benny Kanter (also a Bostonian) as lead alto in Ben Pollock’s band. In 1940 he moved on to Richard Himber, Red Norvo and the NBC studios. Following a wartime hitch in the U.S. Army, he returned to Boston.
In 1945 Viola studied with Lawrence Berk at Schillinger House, and Berk must have recognized the teacher in him, because he hired Viola in 1946. He taught the woodwinds, but also theory, composing, and ensembles. Later he founded the Berklee Saxophone Quartet with John LaPorta, who called Viola the best soprano saxophone player he ever heard. He was the first chairman of the Woodwind Department, and although he stepped down from that post in 1985, he continued to teach until 1996—a full 50 years at Berklee.
The 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.
Teacher, composer, and outstanding reed player John LaPorta died in Sarasota, Florida, on May 12, 2004.
John LaPorta had already lived a whole life in jazz before he arrived at Berklee in 1962. He was on Bob Chester’s big band 1942-44, and with Woody Herman’s First Herd 1944-46. In 1947 he studied and played with Lennie Tristano, and in 1953 took part in the Jazz Composers Workshop sessions with Teo Macero and Charles Mingus, who raved about his talent with the clarinet. His 1950s recordings on the Debut and Fantasy labels showcased his talents as composer, arranger, clarinetist, and saxophonist.
LaPorta was also deeply involved in classical music, performing with Stokowski and Bernstein. He was part of the third stream movement at its start in 1957, with Gunther Schuller, George Russell, and Jimmy Guiffre.
From its first days as Schillinger House, at 284 Newbury Street, the absence of a large performance space hampered Berklee. It could only cast its eyes covetously toward the New England Conservatory and its spectacular Jordan Hall. Berklee had to make do with rental space. Sometimes that was the New England Mutual Hall, but more often than not it was the John Hancock Hall, in the John Hancock Building (the one topped by the weather beacon), at Berkeley and Stuart Streets.
Berklee staged some memorable events at John Hancock Hall, such as Joe Viola’s Musical History of the Saxophone in October 1956, and the first Jazz International Concert in November 1958, showcasing Berklee’s foreign students: Toshiko Akiyoshi, Gabor Szabo, and Arif Mardin. And Berklee used the hall for commencements, speaking engagements, and other functions that attracted a crowd.