My first thought when I learned that Armstrong and Holiday were touring in 1947 with a concert package called “The Birth of the Blues” was that they were promoting their movie, New Orleans, released that year. (They both had roles in the film but they did not star in it; Billie was a singing maid and Louis a bandleader.) My first thought, however, was apparently incorrect.
What was actually happening was Armstrong was touring with his Famous Orchestra (Joe Garland, Big Chief Russell Moore, Arvell Shaw, and a whole lot of musicians I never heard of); that the film had been or was about to be shot; and that Joe Glaser, manager of both Armstrong and Holiday, saw a way to create some buzz for the film by adding Billie to the tour.
Imagine: Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, together for one night only, at the Pioneer Club! One of the better jazz stories handed down in this town involves the meeting of these two giants at the Pioneer Social Club, on Westfield Street. Neither the club nor the street have existed for years, and all involved have passed, so we’ll never know if the story is true. But I choose to believe it.
Westfield Street ran one short block north off Tremont Street in the South End, between Camden and Lenox Streets, in a mainly African-American neighborhood. The Pioneer Club was in a nondescript building on Westfield, and it was perhaps the most famous after-hours club in a city that once had many. There was a bar and a kitchen on the first floor, and a room with a small stage and an upright piano upstairs. The club was by no means a secret, but most of Boston was completely unaware of its existence, which was just fine with the ownership.
The Pioneer was a private club, not subject to the regulations governing public nightclubs. And it is where the musicians and entertainers went to relax after their own work was done.