The Troy Street Observer

The Joe Gordon Story, Part 3: California

Joe Gordon Story Part 1 | Joe Gordon Story Part 2

In early spring 1958, Joe Gordon abruptly left Boston for California. His last known date with Herb Pomeroy was March 18. The story has it that he stopped by the Stable to tell Pomeroy he was leaving town, and he left that same night. Allegedly Joe owed a drug dealer money, was told “pay up or else,” and fled. It might be true, it might not, but the story conforms to the generally accepted Gordon narrative.

Photo of Joe Gordon, 1961
Joe Gordon, 1961. Photo by Roger Marshutz

Gordon was strung out when he arrived in Los Angeles, but he found work with the help of drummer Shelly Manne, who became one of Gordon’s strongest supporters on the West Coast. Joe gigged with Dexter Gordon and Hampton Hawes among others. He also married Irma, whom he’d known in Boston, after arriving in L.A., and he later named one of his better-known tunes for her, “Terra Firma Irma.”

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The Joe Gordon Story, Part 2: Hard Bop

Joe Gordon replaced Clifford Brown in Art Blakey’s pre-Messengers group in early 1954. That band, with alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce, pianist Walter Bishop, Jr. and bassist Bernie Griggs, recorded the album Blakey for EmArcy in May. Gordon stayed with Blakey for about six months.

Photo of Introducing Joe Gordon album cover
Introducing Joe Gordon, EmArcy MG26046, 1954

In September, with Blakey, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, pianist Junior Mance, and bassist Jimmy Schenck, Joe recorded for the first time as a leader, also for EmArcy. The album, a 10-inch LP, was titled Introducing Joe Gordon.

The album’s reviews were mixed. Down Beat’s Nat Hentoff praised it (April 6, 1955), writing: “Gordon, though still a little unsteady…unleashes a power and a comet-like imagination that heralds one of the exciting newer voices of the year…All in all, a bracing sample of somewhat raw but always moving jazz.”

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Nat Hentoff: Remembering a Boston Boy

“Whaddya need? I’m on a deadline.” Thus would begin my first phone conversations with Nat Hentoff, the jazz lover, journalist and self-described troublemaker who died in his New York City home on January 7, 2017. He was 91.

That was Hentoff’s standard gruff greeting, and all who heard it quickly learned there was no time for small talk. You asked your question, got your answer, and went on your way.

Nat-Hentoff-WMEX-1946
Nat Hentoff at WMEX, 1946. Photo by Red Wolf.

This changed when I asked him about Counterpoint, a newsletter that he wrote and produced in 1947. He asked how I learned about it, and I told him that the Dorothy Prescott Papers in the Library of Traditional Jazz at the University of New Hampshire had an almost-complete set. That got him started—Dorothy had been a good friend and fellow member of the Jazz Society, a group of enthusiasts who staged concerts in 1944-46. The long-forgotten Counterpoint carried me past the deadline greeting.

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Jackie and Roy and Storyville Records

Jackie and Roy, STLP 322
Jackie and Roy, Storyville LP 322, 1955. This one was recorded on the East Coast.

Neither vocalist extraordinaire Jackie Cain, who died on September 15, nor her husband and musical partner, Roy Kral, ever claimed a particular closeness to the Boston scene. But Boston did them a good turn—it housed the record company that gave them a chance to strut their stuff when they were just starting to make it as a duo act. The two albums they recorded for the Storyville label in 1955 set the tone for the two dozen that would follow in terms of musicianship and choice of material. “Finally,” wrote Jack Tracy in his review of the first of these, “Mr. and Mrs. Kral have been recorded the way they sound on personal appearances.”

The partnership of Jackie and Roy was formed in 1946 in Chicago, where Jackie was singing with Jay Burkhart’s orchestra, and Roy was playing piano with George Davis at a club called Jump Town. Bob Anderson, a saxophonist with Burkhart who had worked with Kral in earlier days, brought Cain to Jump Town to sit in. They clicked. Soon Cain was the regular singer, and people noticed. Bandleader Charlie Ventura was one, and he hired them both in late 1947. Jackie and Roy were on their way.

Fast forward to May 1954, with Jackie and Roy in Boston for a week at Storyville, where owner George Wein signed them to his Storyville Records label. In late 1954 or early 1955, the duo recorded Jackie and Roy (STLP 322) as part of the Storyville Presents series. Their backing was excellent: Barry Galbraith on guitar, Bill Crow on bass, and Joe Morello on drums. The 10-inch LP featured eight tunes, a now-famous Burt Goldblatt cover photo, and glib George Frazier liner notes.
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Dec 14, 1946: Rumble at the Rio Casino

Billy Eckstine and his orchestra opened at the Rio Casino for two weeks on December 8, 1946, and on Saturday the 14th, they were playing to a packed house. All went well until the end of the second show, just before closing. Boston’s blue laws required all nightclubs to close at midnight on Saturday to honor the Sabbath, and Eckstine was wrapping up for the night. That’s when the trouble started.

Ad for Billy Eckstine at Rio Casino
Eckstine at the Rio Casino. Ad ran in the Daily Record, Dec 7, 1946.

I’ve read two different accounts of what happened next, one in Nat Hentoff’s Counterpoint newsletter and the other in the Jan 15, 1947 issue of Down Beat. They differ in details but agree on the main points: someone in the crowd insulted Eckstine; some of the crowd and some of the band pushed and shoved; and the Rio announced that it would no longer book black bands.

First the insult. Yes, it was the n-word, and it was hurled at Eckstine when he said he could not play any more requests because of the imminent closing time. In one account, the guilty party was a woman, and in the other it was her companion. Either way, Eckstine cut the music and left the stage to confront the couple. The guy kicked Eckstine, who flattened him, and “flattened” is the verb both accounts used.

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June 10: Birthdays for Frazier and Hentoff

Two Boston-born icons of jazz journalism share a June 10 birthday, George Frazier in 1911, and Nat Hentoff in 1925. Happy 88, Nat!

Frazier and Hentoff were part of a gang of influential journalists with Boston ties (George Simon, Mike Levin, Bill Coss, Dom Cerulli, Dan Morgenstern) who determined how jazz would be covered at Down Beat and Metronome, the two major magazines reporting on it at mid-century.

Both grew up in homes of modest means, Frazier in South Boston and Hentoff in Roxbury. Neither got very far as a clarinetist. Both attended Boston Latin High School. Both made a career out of being outspoken and controversial, and both were implacable foes of Jim Crow and the abuse of power. Their musical common denominator was trumpeter Frankie Newton.

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January 4, 1906: Frankie Newton Born in Emory, VA

Trumpeter William Frank “Frankie” Newton was born in Emory, Va. Newton was already a star when he arrived in Boston in January 1942, and stayed for almost two years. He’d played with Cecil Scott, Charlie Barnet, John Kirby, and Teddy Hill; played on Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot” session in 1933 (her last), and on Billie Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” in 1939. He was a founding member of John Kirby’s swing sextet, and often played at Barney Josephson’s Cafe Society nightclub.

His engagement at the Savoy, with trombonist Vic Dickenson alongside, turned Boston jazz on its ear, and his professionalism raised the level of play on bandstands all across town. Wrote one reporter that year: “There’s only one word for Frankie Newton: magnificent.”

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