The Troy Street Observer

Sabby, Symphony Sid and WBMS

Photo of Symphony Sid
Charlie Parker called him “Symphonic Sidney”

May 12 was the start of busy week for Norman Furman, the general manager at Boston’s WHEE radio, 1090 on the AM dial. The owners wanted a new sound, and Furman went to work on that immediately upon his April arrival. On May 12, he had some results.

First, a new deejay was starting that day. Sabby Lewis, the man who personified Boston jazz in the 1940s, would host a one-hour show, six days a week, in the early evening. (Find more on Lewis here, here and here.) “He will be,” announced the Boston Chronicle, “the first colored band leader disc jockey ever in Boston.” Neither the Chronicle nor anyone else said Lewis was the first African-American deejay. He wasn’t. That was Eddy Petty at WVOM. But hiring Lewis demonstrated that Furman, who introduced all-black programming to WLIB in New York City, intended to bring more of that programming to WHEE.

During the week of May 12, the station changed its call letters to WBMS, for “World’s Best Music Station,” its original call when the station first went on the air in 1947. The Boston newspapers carried the announcement on May 19.

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Mar 13, 1950: “The High Priest of Bebop” at the Hi-Hat

Thelonius Monk first worked in Boston with Coleman Hawkins at the Savoy, in March 1944. Six years later he returned to Boston, this time as the headliner, for a weeklong stay at the Hi-Hat, opening on March 13.

Monk by Swierzy
Thelonius Monk by Waldemar Swierzy, 1984

George Clarke, of the Daily Record, mentioned that Monk was in town in his March 18 column. He reported that “If you want to see what a real be-bopper looks like, take a run out to the Hi-Hat where, at the moment, one Thelonius Monk, who calls himself “the high priest of bebop,” is holding forth, be-bop hat, horn-rimmed glasses, tiny goatee, and all…. Thelonius—and he swears that’s his real name—claims to antedate Dizzy Gillespie and all other exponents of musical double-talk, saying he was bopping, or maybe beeping, way back in 1932.”

Yes, Clarke was insulting, but it doesn’t do much good to complain about a columnist’s ignorance 65 years after the fact. He was, most likely, operating in the “bebop-as-gimmick” fog common in mainstream media at the time; perhaps he even considered as legitimate the greeting exchanged by Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Carter in pages of Life magazine in October 1948. And Clarke was a newspaperman of an earlier time, who loved the Harlemania bands of Ellington and Calloway and never had much use for modern jazz.

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Dec 29, 1949: Down Beat, DeFranco, and Fiedler

Sometimes it’s all about the buzz, and so it was at the Hi-Hat on December 29, 1949. Buddy DeFranco was in town for a long stretch over the holidays, and he was a hot commodity at that time. Down Beat published the list of winners of its annual readers poll in the last issue of the year, and that hit newsstands while DeFranco was at the Hi-Hat. Beat readers voted him the number one clarinet man, and it wasn’t the first time, either. DeFranco had won every year since 1945.

Photo of Arthur Fiedler and Buddy DeFranco
DeFranco receiving award from Fiedler at the Hi-Hat. Photo Downbeat Magazine.

With DeFranco were vibist Teddy Charles, pianist Harvey Leonard, guitarist Perry Lopez, bassist Teddy Kotick, and drummer Frank DeVito. Boston guitarist Frankie Rue led the house trio that alternated sets with DeFranco’s sextet.

Ray Barron was Down Beat’s Boston correspondent in 1949, but journalism wasn’t his strong suit. Public relations was, and he saw the timing of the Down Beat award as an opportunity. He arranged to have the award presented to DeFranco at the Hi-Hat, and for the presenter to be none other than Boston Pops maestro Arthur Fiedler.

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Nov 14 1955: Hamilton Sets Box Office Record at the Hi-Hat

What was happening at the Hi-Hat? In the first half of 1955, it was still Boston’s House of Jazz, presenting, among others, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, and Max Roach and Clifford Brown. After the summer shutdown, though, it was  almost as if it were a different club.

Ad for Roy Hamilton at Hi-Hat
Roy Hamilton at the Hi-Hat, Nov 14-20, 1955

October started with Mel Torme, followed by the doo-wop group The Stylers, and then pop singer Sunny Gale. Next came guitarist Tiny Grimes and His Rockin’ Highlanders, an R&B outfit who performed in kilts, on an unusual bill with singer Jeri Southern. Then came the venerable R&B band of Steve Gibson and the Red Tops with singer Damita Jo.

Metronome didn’t like it, lamenting that the Hi-Hat was now featuring the likes of Tiny Grimes, a onetime jazz guitarist playing in a band “with funny hats and blue jokes.”  The Harvard Crimson, which then followed jazz closely, also complained that the club had abandoned good jazz in favor of singers and R&B bands with semi-jazz overtones.

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Oct 16, 1951: Vout-O-Reenee! Slim Gaillard at the Hi-Hat

In the first half of the 1950s, the Hi-Hat was one of Boston’s busiest clubs, and the best jazz and rhythm & blues artists performed there regularly. Charlie Parker appeared five times, Oscar Peterson six, Dizzy Gillespie seven, Illinois Jacquet eight. But the most popular star was Bulee “Slim” Gaillard, who played the Hi-Hat eleven times in 1951-54. He commenced his first engagement on October 16, 1951.

Photo of Slim Gaillard
McVouty himself, in an undated publicity photo

Gaillard played piano and more often guitar, but we remember him especially as a singer. There was his duo with bassist Slam Stewart, with whom he had the big late thirties hit, “Flat Foot Floogie.” It got Slim and Slam to Hollywood, but army service interrupted Gaillard’s career. After the war there were records with the likes of Leo Watson and Dizzy Gillespie, and a well-known trio with drummer Scatman Crothers and bassist Bam Brown. This is when his wordplay hit its peak.

Vout was a nonsense language invented by Gaillard, as well as his stage gimmick. As with Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary, everyday words assumed new meanings, but it didn’t end with that. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, vout was “a humorous language invented by Gaillard in which he inserted nonsense syllables into everyday words.” You can ponder pages of the vout dictionary here.
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June 22, 1921: Pianist Al Vega Born in Worcester

Photo of Al Vega
Al Vega, ca. 1974

Anybody who’s familiar with Boston jazz knows about pianist and arranger Al Vega, by virtue of his 69 years as a professional musician here, from 1938 to 1942, and then from 1946 until his death in 2011 (he served in the army 1942-1946). That covers the tenures of 9 Boston mayors, 13 U.S. presidents, and 24 Red Sox managers. That’s a lot of coming and going.

Vega (born Aram Vagramian, in Worcester) was one of the young musicians who advanced quickly during the war as they replaced army-bound older musicians. Vega was a frequent substitute in the name bands, and a regular at the Ken Club jam sessions, where he played alongside Sidney Bechet, Red Allen, and Jo Jones. Then Vega, too, went into the service.

Jazz jobs weren’t abundant after the war, and Vega worked in dance bands—George Graham, Ruby Newman, Syd Ross—while completing his studies at the New England Conservatory.

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March 10, 1959: Four-Alarm Fire Destroys Hi-Hat

Boston Herald readers awoke to see an EXTRA! at the top of page 1, and the news was bad. “A stubborn four-alarm fire swept the Hi-Hat Cafe at 576 Columbus Ave., South End, at 3:00. The four story brick structure was in flames from cellar to garret, although firefighters had been battling the smoky blaze for a half hour when the fourth alarm was sounded.”

Sabby Lewis at the Hi-Hat
Sabby Lewis at the Hi-Hat

The afternoon Traveler told the whole depressing story. A thousand residents fled nearby buildings in sub-freezing temperatures while the fire burned out of control for two hours. Ice, snow, and thick smoke combined to produce a dense smog, making firefighting all the more difficult. The building was a total loss, and the rooming house behind it rendered uninhabitable. Streets were blocked for hours. What remained standing was pulled down days later as a safety hazard. The Hi-Hat was history.

The Hi-Hat was one of Boston’s most important clubs, from the time it converted from a whites-only dine-and-dance place into an integrated nightclub with a jazz policy in the summer of 1948. Famous firsts abounded: it was the first Boston club to present as leaders Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, and Sarah Vaughan. But it was more to Boston than a name-band room. Dozens of Boston musicians worked there, including Dean Earl, Rollins Griffith, Bernie Griggs, Clarence Jackson, Sabby Lewis, Charlie Mariano, Nat Pierce, Fat Man Robinson, Hillary Rose, Jimmy Tyler, Al Vega, and many more. Symphony Sid set up shop here and broadcast live nightly over WCOP from “the Jazz Corner of Boston.”
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February 17, 1913: Organist Hillary Rose Born

Pianist, organist, and bandleader Hillary Rose born in Saint Michael Parish, Barbados. Rose’s family emigrated when he was a child, settling in Cambridge, where he studied piano. He later studied at the Boston Conservatory, and privately with Sandy Sandiford, and eventually graduated from Berklee in 1955.

He organized his first band, Hillary Rose and His Rhythm Boys, in 1935. He worked with saxophonist Pete Brown in 1945, and his 1946-51 quartet with saxophonist Tom Kennedy, bassist Lee Farrell, and drummer George “Peanuts” Seaforth was a regular feature at the Savoy, the Hi-Hat, and many Merrimac Valley clubs.

Rose led a short-lived band with trumpeter Joe Gordon in 1952 (“This cat is soulful though he can’t read a note!” Gordon told Jazz Journal), then was on the road through much of the 1950s. When he returned to Boston in 1958, he was playing the organ exclusively. He led trios all over the South End, at the Trinidad Lounge, the Big M, and the Hi-Hat (he led the last house trio at the Hi-Hat, which burned in March 1959). Rose, with drummer Bill Grant, had the house trio at Connolly’s first with tenor saxophonist Dan Turner, then with Jimmy Tyler, from fall 1959 to spring 1962.

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Jan 26, 1953: Al Vega Records for Prestige

January 26, 1953 was a good day for Boston pianists: Al Vega recorded for Prestige, and Dick Twardzik opened with Alan Eager at the Hi-Hat.

Al Vega Trio
Al Vega Trio, Prestige LP 152

Prestige Records wanted to capture some of the young modernists working in Boston, so they recorded Al Vega’s Trio, with Jack Lawlor and Jimmy Zitano, at the Ace Recording Studio on Jan. 26, and Charlie Mariano’s group at Ace on the 27th. The Al Vega Trio was released as a 10-inch LP, Prestige 152.

Meanwhile, Lester Young was a last-minute cancellation at the Hi-Hat, and saxophonist Alan Eager was called to replace him. Eager used a Boston rhythm section of Dick Twardzik, then known for his work with Serge Chaloff; drummer Gene Glennon, who worked with Twardzik and Chaloff on Cape Cod in 1951; and Bernie Griggs, the Hi-Hat’s house bassist. Twardzik and Griggs were on Mariano’s session the next day, along with trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, in what may have been his recording debut, and drummer Jimmy Weiner.

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