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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Feb 22, 1960: Held Over! Herman Chittison at the Mayfair Lounge

Herman Chittison, a stride-school pianist who played a gorgeous melody, spent close to two years in Boston in 1959-61. Maybe that wasn’t long enough to qualify him as a “Boston jazz musician,” but he certainly made his presence felt in the time he was here.

Photo of Herman Chittison
Herman Chittison in 1950

Chittison arrived in Boston in October 1959, as resident pianist at the Red Garter in the Lenox Hotel, in the room where the City Bar is now. He remained there through January, joined at least part of the time by singer Greta Rae. Then he moved to the Mayfair Lounge, in Bay Village. The melodic Chittison played solo piano in the lounge while name bands played in the main room. After three weeks, the club announced it was holding over Chittison indefinitely.

Chittison’s career started in 1928, with Zack Whyte’s territory band in Ohio, and in the early 1930s in New York, his soft touch found him work as an accompanist to Adelaide Hall and Ethel Waters. He visited Boston for the first time with a traveling show headlined by comic actor Stepin Fetchit. In late 1933 he went to Europe with the Willie Lewis Orchestra, and the following year recorded with Louis Armstrong in Paris. Chittison and trumpeter Bill Coleman left Lewis in 1938, and formed a band that worked extensively in Cairo, and traveled as far east as India.

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January 1958: Life Is a Many Splendored Gig for the Pomeroy Band

In late January 1958, after what seemed to Bostonians like an interminable wait, Roulette Records released Life Is a Many Splendored Gig, the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra’s first album (Roulette R-52001), and January 30 was the date the local press first wrote about it.

Photo of Herb Pomeroy
Herb Pomeroy, 1956. Photo Berklee College of Music

John McLellan, in his twice-weekly Jazz Scene column in the Boston Traveler (oh, to have the luxury of a twice-weekly jazz column in a daily paper), summed it up in six words: “the whole album is a gas.”

In The Boston Jazz Chronicles, I wrote about this band being the high-water mark of Boston jazz in the 1950s, and this recording is the proof of it. The band swings and the soloists (especially Joe Gordon) are standouts, but I give extra credit to the arrangers—Pomeroy’s band had the reputation of a writers’ band, and they’re in evidence here. Band members Everett Longstreth and Boots Mussulli contributed two arrangements each, as did Pomeroy himself, and Jaki Byard and Ray Santisi each wrote one. Byard’s “Aluminum Baby” became the band’s most requested tune. Bob Freedman, who replaced Byard in the saxophone section in September 1957, also contributed a chart.

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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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May 5, 1958: Jazz Scene Debuts on Local TV

On May 5, 1958, jazz came to the small screen as The Jazz Scene launched on the commercial station WHDH-TV.

Photo of John McLellan
John McLellan at the WHDH microphone

Hard as it is to believe, jazz was a regular feature on network television in the late fifties. In 1958, Garry Moore and Steve Allen each hosted the Timex All Star Jazz Show, Benny Goodman headlined a special called Swing into Spring, Billy Taylor hosted one series, The Subject Is Jazz, and Bobby Troup had another, Stars of Jazz.

All of these programs were hoping to duplicate the success enjoyed by The Sound of Jazz, broadcast by CBS in December 1957. Shot in black-and-white, with no elaborate sets, whirling dancers, or celebrity hosts, the show simply presented the musicians, in casual dress and settings, blowing. The artistic directors, Nat Hentoff and Whitney Balliet, kept the focus on the musicians and their music. It was jazz at its spontaneous best, and none of the shows that followed could match it.

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Apr 7: The Jazz Scene of John McLellan

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.

Photo of John McLellan
John McLellan at the WHDH microphone

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.

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