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.
John McLellan, Boston’s one-man jazz media machine in the 1950s, was born in Shanghai, China, on April 7, 1926. For ten years, McLellan was the most prominent jazz advocate in the Boston media, with programs on commercial radio and television, and a column in a daily newspaper. He was a good spokesman for jazz—intelligent but not smug, respectful of his readers and listeners, and attracted to honest and well-played music from across the entire spectrum of jazz. Nothing irked him as much as fakery and closed-mindedness.
WHDH radio hired McLellan while he was an engineering student at MIT in 1951. He started with a half-hour program on Sunday evening called The Top Shelf—and the program director told him not to mention “jazz” on the air because it might frighten away the listeners. It didn’t, and despite tepid support from station management, the show’s popularity grew and McLellan got more air time. The program ended in February 1961. In the mid-fifties, McLellan also broadcast a “live from Storyville” show on Tuesday nights on WHDH for three years.
In August 1957, McLellan began writing a twice-weekly newspaper column, “The Jazz Scene,” for the daily Boston Traveler. “The Jazz Scene” continued until September 1961, some 400 columns in all. I could not have written The Boston Jazz Chronicles without “The Jazz Scene” and its nonstop news, reviews, and interviews. It covered the week-to-week life of the Boston jazz community, from high-school bands to Storyville, for four years. Those columns remain an invaluable record.