Billie Holiday opened her last engagement in Boston on April 20, 1959, at Storyville. For Holiday, who had not worked in Boston for three-and-a-half years, it was a triumphant return.
I believe Holiday first came to the Hub in August 1937 with Basie’s band, singing at the Ritz Roof. She made history here in March 1938 when she joined the Artie Shaw Orchestra at the Roseland-State Ballroom. The 1940s are dotted with Holiday appearances, but Boston was really reintroduced to her in February 1951, during a ten-day engagement at the Latin Quarter.
Boston in 1951 had the Hi-Hat and Storyville competing for jazz talent. Holiday, who had lost her cabaret card, could not work in the New York clubs, so the Boston situation was to her advantage—between 1951 and 1955, she worked week-long engagements at Storyville five times and at the Hi-Hat four. The last was in October 1955, and although she sang at the North Shore Jazz Festival in Lynn in 1957, she wasn’t seen in Boston again until April 1959. On this visit, her accompanist, Mal Waldron, was joined by bassist Champ Jones and drummer Roy Haynes.
My first thought when I learned that Armstrong and Holiday were touring in 1947 with a concert package called “The Birth of the Blues” was that they were promoting their movie, New Orleans, released that year. (They both had roles in the film but they did not star in it; Billie was a singing maid and Louis a bandleader.) My first thought, however, was apparently incorrect.
What was actually happening was Armstrong was touring with his Famous Orchestra (Joe Garland, Big Chief Russell Moore, Arvell Shaw, and a whole lot of musicians I never heard of); that the film had been or was about to be shot; and that Joe Glaser, manager of both Armstrong and Holiday, saw a way to create some buzz for the film by adding Billie to the tour.
An unhappy Billie Holiday left the Basie band in mid-February 1938, and here she was, four weeks later, in Boston and joining the Art (not yet Artie) Shaw Orchestra. That band was working out of Charlie Shribman’s Roseland-State Ballroom, on Mass Ave at Burbank. The brothers Charlie and Sy Shribman, in return for a percentage of the band’s future earnings, were backing Shaw financially and providing rehearsal space for the band during its incubation period.
Shaw’s Orchestra would play at the Roseland-State on Tuesdays and Saturdays, broadcasting over the CBS radio network on Tuesday at midnight, and on Saturday at 6:30—early, before people went out for the evening. Midweek, Shribman booked the band into other New England venues, so someone in New Haven or Springfield could hear the band on the radio on Saturday, and see it on Thursday. It was a successful system for building a band. (more…)