The Troy Street Observer

Apr 20, 1959: Lady Day’s Last Visit

Photo of Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday, 1958

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.

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The Second Boston Globe Jazz Festival

In the mid-1950s, the Boston Globe disdained jazz, and in 1955 even openly mocked George Wein’s efforts at Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival. Times change, and in 1966 the Globe hired Wein to produce the first Boston Globe Jazz Festival, at the Boston War Memorial Auditorium (later renamed the Hynes Convention Center).

1967 Boston Globe Jazz Fest program cover
1967 Boston Globe Jazz Festival program cover

It was a success, and Wein was back at it on Jan 20–21, 1967. He brought that old Boston hand, Father Norman O’Connor, along to emcee. Down Beat’s Alan Heineman was there, and though there were high points, his overall reaction was: “lackluster.”

That mood started on Friday night. The Modern Jazz Quartet was “disappointing” and the Dave Brubeck Quartet was “dull.” Even Monk’s Quartet was “pleasant and predictable—to the extent that Monk can ever be called predictable.” By then it was 11:30, and much of the audience departed before the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra played a single note. But their set was sizzling, with superior ensemble blowing and exceptional soloing: “Highlights? Hell, the entire set was a highlight.” But less than half of the capacity crowd remained to hear them.

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October 3: Happy Birthday, George Wein

I can’t possibly do justice to George Wein, born in Boston on this day in 1925, in a single blog post. I can’t even do justice in one post to his 12 years on the Boston scene, the beginning of his 65 years (and counting) as a vital contributor to the world of music.

Photo of George and Joyce Wein
George and Joyce Wein at Newport, ca. 1960

In The Boston Jazz Chronicles, the chapter about Wein is titled “Dynamo,” because he was a man constantly in motion. And it was during the 1950s, when he was the most important figure in Boston jazz, that Wein began his rise to national prominence.

Wein grew up in Newton and graduated from Newton High School (so did Ralph Burns, Serge Chaloff, Hal McKusick, and Roz Cron, all within a few years of each other), and while still in his teens, George was playing piano in the buckets of blood (yes, at Izzy Ort’s!) and sitting in at jam sessions. Then he got drafted. After his discharge in 1946, the jazz odyssey began in earnest.
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August 26, 1960: Jazz Festival at Pleasure Island

The Jazz Festival at Pleasure Island, held August 26-27, 1960, was the last of Boston’s big outdoor festivals, following the North Shore Jazz Festival in 1957 and the Boston Jazz Festival in 1959. Pleasure Island was sometimes called the Second Boston Jazz Festival, mainly because PAMA, George Wein’s new company, produced it. Wein might have been at the helm, but circumstances had changed since August 1959.

Ad for the Jazz Festival at Pleasure Island
Newspaper ad for the Jazz Festival at Pleasure Island, August 1960

The Boston Jazz Festival had not been a financial success, and Wein planned changes for 1960. He had a suburban location in mind (think “parking”), and though a three-day festival at the Weymouth Fairgrounds was proposed, the final decision was for a two-day affair at Pleasure Island, an amusement park in Wakefield. Its outdoor theater seated about 7,000.

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August 8, 1969: Jazz Concert at Castle Hill

Castle Hill LogoSummertime jazz finally went outdoors to stay in 1954, courtesy of the Newport Jazz Festival and Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival. In 1955, Castle Hill, on the Crane Estate in Ipswich, joined the al fresco party. Their venerable classical concert series invited a jazz band for the first time. The band was Louis Armstrong’s.

Series organizers wanted jazz, but not just any jazz. They wanted mainstream names with crossover appeal who wouldn’t rock the suburban boat. Still, not everyone associated with Castle Hill embraced the idea of jazz concerts, and Count Basie’s contract couldn’t be signed in 1956 until background checks on performers were completed. When asked if this was prompted by concern over subversive influences, the concert organizer responsible replied, “no comment.” What, I wonder, was he afraid of—Dope? African-Americans? Beatniks? All of the above?

In Basie’s Old Testament days, Jimmy Rushing sang “Baby, Don’t You Tell on Me.” Perhaps the Count called it at Castle Hill.
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June 9, 1954: Jazz Night Born at the Boston Arts Festival

Cover of Storyville LP 311
Jazz at the Boston Arts Festival, STLP 311, 1954. Cover by Burt Goldblatt.

Jazz Night was first included as part of the program during the Third Boston Arts Festival, in 1954. Jazz happily took its place on the festival stage in the Public Garden on the festival’s third night, following Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and preceding Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness.

Jazz Night came about though the lobbying efforts of Father Norman O’Connor, the Jazz Priest from Boston University, George Wein of Storyville, and John McLellan of WHDH radio. They, and their allies, convinced the Brahmin-heavy Board of Trustees to try jazz for one night to see how it went.

They started the night with an erudite panel discussing some flavor or other of “is jazz serious music.” Panelists included O’Connor, McLellan, and Wein, as well as Rod Nordell from the Christian Science Monitor and Prof. Klaus Liepmann, head of the Music Department at MIT. The panel asserted that jazz could indeed be taken seriously.
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Jun 23 1955: Wein, Wales, Wail for Atlantic Records

Cover of Wein, Women and Song
Atlantic LP 1221, 1955

As George Wein tells it in his autobiography, Myself Among Others, it was George Frazier’s idea to have Wein, owner of Storyville Records, record an album for Atlantic Records, a competitor. Frazier suggested it to Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun, who liked the idea of Wein playing and singing standards in a trio format. They signed a deal and scheduled a session for April 1955.

Wein apparently had more in mind than just a trio recording. For the April date, Wein had his bassist, Stan Wheeler, and drummer, Marquis Foster, both from his Storyville house band. But he also brought cornetist Ruby Braff and tenor saxophonist Sammy Margolis, and the mood was jazz. By the end of the session, the quintet had completed eight tunes, not quite enough for an album.

Before the group could reconvene, however, Wein was in the studio producing a record date for a singer/pianist for his own Storyville Records. On June 23, he had bassist Bill Pemberton, drummer Jo Jones, and the mystery trumpeter, Wally Wales, ready to go. The problem was, the singer had a few drinks and was unable to function. Wein had already paid the musicians, so he took over the piano and microphone and recorded enough material to fill out the Atlantic album. Wales, wrote Wein, “played beautifully behind me.”

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March 26, 1949: Wein Opens Le Jazz Doux

George Wein opened Le Jazz Doux at the Hotel Fensgate on March 26, 1949. George Wein was a senior at Boston University that spring, and he had the entrepreneurial itch. He’d been the music director at the Savoy in 1948, and had staged the big concert at Jordan Hall on March 1. He got the opportunity to run a little club of his own from late March to early May 1949, in the Hotel Fensgate, at 534 Beacon Street in the Back Bay.

Le Jazz Doux postcard
Postcard advertising Le Jazz Doux, 1949

The Fensgate already had a club, the Satire Room, once advertised as “Boston’s most expensive and intimate rendezvous.” Liberace made his Boston debut at the Satire, as did Irwin Corey. George Frazier, in his Herald review of singer Elsie Houston in August 1942, noted the cost of an evening at the Satire Room: “She is so good that you forget for the moment that the check will be a sum only slightly smaller than the national debt. That’s being pretty good.”

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