The Troy Street Observer

Boston Jazz Chronicles, Blizzard Edition

Photo of traffic in snowstorm, 1967
Crawling on the Southeast Expressway, 1967

We in the Boston area in 2015 are saying “enough, already!” when it comes to the interminable cycle of snow-cold-snow-cold. I looked through the archives to see how the music fared on other cold and snowy nights, and found snapshots of 1943, 1958, 1967, and 1978.

Our first winter wonderland stop is Symphony Hall, where the Duke Ellington Orchestra performed Black, Brown, and Beige in its entirety on Jan 28, 1943. It was the second of only three complete performances of the 43-minute work, Duke’s “tone parallel to the history of the American Negro.” The critics had not been kind when the work premiered at Carnegie Hall the previous Saturday, and the press release let the people know it would be “serious jazz…with no comedy or capers,” but none of that deterred the Boston audience; it was standing room only and the box office turned away 1,200, all on a day when over a foot of snow blanketed the city.

Although Black, Brown, and Beige was received more warmly in Boston than in New York, the praise wasn’t unqualified. Wrote reviewer Eugene Benyas, “I can only report that Duke lived up to and confirmed all but the very highest expectations. If “B, B, and B” did not successfully bring jazz to the concert stage, it did not deny the existence of Ellington’s genius.” The most generous applause went to other pieces. Rex Stewart stopped the show with his solo on “Boy Meets Horn,” and Ray Nance played splendid violin on “Bakiff.”

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Dec 22, 1949: B Sharp Boston

Today’s post may, or may not, have something to do with Boston jazz, and determining whether it does might require the services of an Ellington scholar. The subject is “B Sharp Boston,” recorded by Duke Ellington in New York on December 22, 1949, and issued on a Columbia Priceless Edition single.

Record label, B Sharp Boston
“B Sharp Boston,” Priceless Editions PE-7, 1951

“B Sharp Boston” might be Duke’s musical reaction to the events recounted in this blog’s Dec 18 post on the breakup of the Sabby Lewis Orchestra. Sabby was well known in New York, and the breakup would have been big news in the jazz community there. Ellington was Sabby’s friend, and Duke admired his piano playing. And the friendships went up and down the line in both bands—some grew up together in Boston, others worked together in New York, and everybody knew everybody. I’m sure Duke had all the sad details on the breakup before he sat down to lunch on December 19.


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On June 20, 1927, Harry Carney Joins Duke’s Band

Photo of Harry Carney
Harry Carney in the 1930s

Nineteen twenty-seven was the fourth summer that Charlie Shribman booked Duke Ellington and His Washingtonians on an extended tour of the New England circuit, and it would be the last. The Washingtonians were scheduled for about 35 dates that summer, and the first was on June 20, at Nuttings-on-the-Charles in Waltham. Nuttings, part boat house and part dance hall, was built on pilings over the Charles River at Prospect Street (the pilings are still visible).

This particular night, Duke’s band was in a battle of music with Mal Hallett’s dance band. As Duke told Down Beat in 1962, the Washingtonians were a good band, but “It had to be terrific in those days, because that was when Mal Hallett had a band up in New England and you had to play alongside him. The big dance territories were in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Charlie Shribman put on dances, and they’d have battles of music. All these big bands used to come up from New York, and Mal Hallett would blow them right out over the Charles River. He just played big, fat arrangements of dance music, and most of his guys were legit, but they’d open up with a flag-waver, and that was it!”

In itself, Ellington opening his summer tour at Nuttings is just another gig. More interesting was Duke’s new saxophonist/clarinetist. Harry Carney, 17, had played with Ellington a few times the previous summer, and just a few days before, on June 16, he became a member of the Washingtonians. On the 20th, at Nuttings, Harry Carney played his first engagement as a member of the Ellington band. He would remain for 47 years, three months, and eleven days. Carney was still in the Ellington band, then under Mercer Ellington’s direction, when he died on October 8, 1974. No one had a longer tenure.

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May 18, 1951: Duke’s Mercer Session

Duke Ellington recorded four sides in Boston for the Mercer label on May 18, 1951. The question is, where did the Mercer session take place?

Mercer was a short-lived record label financed by Duke Ellington and run by namesake Mercer Ellington and Leonard Feather. It recorded small-group sessions by Ellington sidemen, sometimes including Duke himself, between February 1950 and July 1951. The Boston session was the only occasion on which the label recorded outside of New York.

Mercer Records label
A Mercer Records LP, with tunes from the Boston session. It has Strayhorn’s name, but it’s Ellington playing

This small group was called the Coronets, and it was a unique session in the realm of Ellingtonia. This configuration of the Coronets was a septet with the trombones of Quentin Jackson, Britt Woodman, and Juan Tizol up front with Willie Smith’s alto saxophone, and Ellington, Wendell Marshall, and Louis Bellson in the rhythm section. Billy Strayhorn replaced Duke on one number. (The Ellingtonia site includes Jimmy Hamilton and Russell Procope on the session. Other sources including the Duke Ellington Panorama disagree, as do my own ears.).

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Mar 19, 1981: A Festive Tribute to Duke

The big hit of the Boston Globe Jazz Festival of 1981 was the home-grown “Tribute to the Duke,” produced by Herb Pomeroy and Tony Cennamo. Amidst all the national talent on display during the festival that year—Lionel Hampton, Chick Corea, Dizzy Gillespie, Zoot Sims, Phil Woods, and many others—none cast a longer shadow than the Bostonians on their home ground.

The evening’s emcee at the Berklee Performance Center was pianist Sabby Lewis, who played an Ellington medley with bassist John Neves and drummer Fred Buda. The rest of the evening’s music featured the Pomeroy Orchestra. Pomeroy revered Ellington, and played with the Ellington Orchestra. He was also known for teaching Ellington at Berklee. Duke once quipped that he ought to drop in on Herb’s class to find out what he was doing; he eventually did and there’s a picture of it here. On this night Pomeroy’s Orchestra played Ellington favorites such as “Kinda Dukish,” “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” and “Chelsea Bridge.” Soloists singled out in newspaper reviews the next day included Phil Wilson, Jimmy Mosher, and Jimmy Derba. Mae Arnette joined the band to sing “I Let a Song Go out of My Heart” and “I Got It Bad.”

There were longer pieces as well, one being a Pomeroy favorite, the “Tone Parallel To Harlem.” The evening’s most ambitious offering was “The Road of the Phoebe Snow,” an Ellington medley first assembled for the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, with dancers Leon Collins and Adrienne Hawkins joining the band this night.

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Feb 24, 1960: Louis and Duke, One Night Only

Imagine: Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, together for one night only, at the Pioneer Club!  One of the better jazz stories handed down in this town involves the meeting of these two giants at the Pioneer Social Club, on Westfield Street. Neither the club nor the street have existed for years, and all involved have passed, so we’ll never know if the story is true. But I choose to believe it.

Photo of Duke Ellington at piano
Ellington: Maybe he played all night

Westfield Street ran one short block north off Tremont Street in the South End, between Camden and Lenox Streets, in a mainly African-American neighborhood. The Pioneer Club was in a nondescript building on Westfield, and it was perhaps the most famous after-hours club in a city that once had many. There was a bar and a kitchen on the first floor, and a room with a small stage and an upright piano upstairs. The club was by no means a secret, but most of Boston was completely unaware of its existence, which was just fine with the ownership.

The Pioneer was a private club, not subject to the regulations governing public nightclubs. And it is where the musicians and entertainers went to relax after their own work was done.

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