The Troy Street Observer

Bob Wilber and Wilbermania in Boston

In January 1949, when Boston’s modern jazz pot was beginning to boil, the most popular jazzman in the clubs represented a different camp entirely. It was a Sidney Bechet disciple named Bob Wilber. Saxophonist and clarinetist Wilber, who died August 4, 2019 at age 91, was a frequent visitor to the Hub between late 1947 and late 1951. Those were critical years for Wilber, learning years, and he treated Boston’s Savoy Cafe as his personal woodshed. In 1949, Wilber was a near-constant presence at the Savoy, at a time when state law said he wasn’t even old enough to buy a beer there.

Photo of Bob Wilber, 1947
Bob Wilber, 1947

Bob Wilber studied intensively with Sidney Bechet in 1946-47, living in his home and recording with him. Then Sidney sent his pupil to Steve Connolly’s Savoy Cafe, where Bechet himself played a triumphant engagement in 1945. Wilber’s trio opened in November 1947. His high-school pal Dick Wellstood was on piano and the venerable Kaiser Marshall, himself a former Bostonian, played drums.

Wilber toured France in summer 1948 with Mezz Mezzrow, a trip that included an appearance at the Nice International Jazz Festival. In October he was back at the Savoy, with his best-known 1940s band: Henry Goodwin, trumpet; Jimmy Archey, trombone; Dick Wellstood, piano; Pops Foster, bass; and Tommy Benford, drums. This band packed the Savoy nightly. Connolly tore up their contract and announced they were staying indefinitely.

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The Boston Days of Charlie Bourgeois

Charlie Bourgeois, who was George Wein’s director of public relations and right-hand man for over 60 years, died at the age of 94 on January 26, but I’ve read very little about it.  Bourgeois was active on the Boston jazz scene even before Wein hired him at Storyville in 1951. Two events in particular stand out.

Photo of Pee Wee Russell and Charlie Bourgeois
Pee Wee Russell and Charlie Bourgeois at Newport, sometime in the sixties. Photo Newport Jazz Festival.

The first was his staging of “a recital of contemporary music” at the John Hancock Hall in October 1949 with the trio of Mary Lou Williams and the sextet of Lennie Tristano, which included Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. It was Tristano’s first Boston appearance, and the concert program attempted to prepare the listeners for Tristano’s way-out music: “Tristano seeks optimum conditions and an intelligent audience for the performance of his music. It all may seem strange to the untrained ear but the music concepts that Tristano conveys may be assimilated by all who are eager to hear. Contemplation is required in the appreciation of any art.” Clearly, Bourgeois wasn’t sure that the Boston audience was as ready for the sound of modern jazz as he himself was.

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