The Troy Street Observer

Election Special: Wild About Harry

Let’s take a break from the insults and name calling of the 2016 presidential campaign to recall a lighter moment from the Dewey-vs-Truman campaign of 1948. It involves Thomas E. Dewey’s motorcade through the streets of Boston, Nat Pierce’s band, and Harry S. Truman’s campaign theme song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”

Photo of Dewey supporters
Dewey was the favorite, but the people were Wild About Harry

This all starts with David X. Young, the abstract expressionist painter and proprietor of the legendary Jazz Loft in New York City. He lived in Boston in the late 1940s, and was a devoted fan of Nat Pierce’s jazz orchestra.

Young wrote the liner notes for a 1975 album that collected the work of that band. (Nat Pierce Orchestra 1948–50, Zim Records ZM-1005, out of print) He mentions a 1948 incident where unnamed musicians serenaded Dewey with Truman’s campaign song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” as Dewey passed by on Boylston Street. He noted that Dewey listened “glumly” as confetti rained down. When, I wondered, did this happen?

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Don Stratton’s Boston Jazz Scene, 1949

Trumpeter, composer and educator Don Stratton, a true Yankee original, died at his home in Augusta, Maine, on April 24, 2016. I got to know Don ten years ago when I interviewed him for The Boston Jazz Chronicles, and we stayed in touch afterwards. He was a source of countless insights and anecdotes, and I always enjoyed our conversations.

Don Stratton photo
Don Stratton, mid 1950s

Don was active professionally on the Boston scene from 1945 to 1951, and he was enormously helpful in providing information on those years. For much of that time he lived close to the center of the jazz scene, at Mass Ave and Columbus, and he knew every important musician, black and white, in Boston in those years. This post, based on our conversations in 2005-06, recount that time in Don’s life.

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Woody Herman’s Boston Connection

Woody Herman kicked off 1956 by bringing his brand-new Herd to Storyville on January 2 for one week. The band was originally scheduled for the Hi-Hat the previous month, but a two-alarm fire closed that club the day Herman was to open. Knowing Woody was always a good draw in Boston, George Wein hired the new band, sound unheard.

Photo of Woody Herman
Woody, early 1960s. Sure looks like Phil Wilson behind him.

This was a new Herd, organized in late 1955. The Hi-Hat job might have been the band’s debut, but instead that honor went to a Philadelphia location. If we were counting, we could call this the “Fourth Herd,” but Herman was done counting. It included a few Third Herd carryovers alongside the new crew, and among those on the bandstand in Boston were saxophonist Richie Kamuca, bass trumpeter Cy Touff, trombonist Wayne Andre, pianist Vince Guaraldi, and vibist Victor Feldman. The one man with a Boston connection was trumpeter Dud Harvey. Coming Herman bands would have more.

Woody Herman’s connection to Boston started in spring 1938, when he worked four weeks at the Raymor Ballroom on Huntington Ave. He was back for four more weeks in fall 1938, and for four more early in 1939. In and around these dates, Herman’s “Band That Plays the Blues” had their big break at the Famous Door in New York. But like the Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller bands, Herman’s band mastered its book and its sound while working in Boston.

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Nov 28: Chaloff, Mariano, and the Boptet

Two of Boston’s finest modern-era saxophonists were born in November, 1923: Charlie Mariano on the 12th, and Serge Chaloff on the 24th. (Well, OK, other local-impact saxophonists born in November include Sam Margolis on the 1st, Andy McGhee on the 3rd, Jay Migliori on the 14th, Boots Mussulli on the 18th, Bob Freedman on the 23rd, and Gigi Gryce on the 28th. We’re talking all-stars here.).

Photo of the Charlie Mariano Boptet
Sonny Truitt, Charlie Mariano, and Serge Chaloff: the Boptet, well chilled

Mariano and Chaloff rubbed shoulders often between 1949 and 1954, and two encounters stand out as significant. One was recorded on April 16, 1949, and thus saved, while the second, a live set played by the Charlie Mariano Boptet on May 21, 1950, is forgotten.

Charlie and Serge were the best known modern jazz players in Boston, but the cast of characters included Nat Pierce ( here and here) in whose orchestra Mariano was the star soloist, and a number of others in that 1948-50 band. There was drummer Joe MacDonald, who with Pierce and Mariano had formed the first trio to play jazz at the Hi-Hat in 1948. Trumpeters Gait Preddy and Don Stratton, trombonist Mert Goodspeed and Sonny Truitt, and bassist Frank Vaccaro were also with Pierce.
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July 5, 1948: Big Band Chooses Nat Pierce as New Leader

Label for Crystal-Tone 521B
Crystal-Tone 521B, “What Can I Say Dear After I Say I’m Sorry,” by Ray Borden

Trumpeter Ray Borden first organized a big band in Boston in 1941, but it was not successful. He joined Stan Kenton’s band in late 1942 and remained until spring 1944. He then worked short stints with a half-dozen other name bands, including those of Jack Teagarden and Bobby Sherwood. In late 1945, he organized a new Boston band, and as it matured, it became the band that employed the area’s best white modern jazz players. In 1947 the Borden band recorded at least six sides for Manny Koppelman’s Crystal-Tone Records, and released them in early 1948.

At the time of the Crystal-Tone sessions, the band included trumpeters Gait Preddy and Don Stratton, tenor saxophonist Chuck Stentz, and from Shorty Sherock’s 1946 band, trombonist Mert Goodspeed, alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano, drummer Joe MacDonald, and pianist/arranger Nat Pierce. The Crystal-Tone recordings showed a band that was tight, capable, and modern in outlook.

But not enough people were hearing the Borden band, and apparently Borden didn’t have the respect of his men. Mert Goodspeed remembered that “Borden was a fun guy, a lot of clowning around, but he was not cut out to be a bandleader.” His “management style” was plagued by missteps. Finally, in June 1948, Borden arranged a meeting with a representative of one of the major record labels, who had heard the Crystal-Tones…and Borden blew off the meeting. The rep went back to New York, and that was that.
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May 21, 1950: Boston’s First Jazz Festival

Boston’s first outdoor jazz festival, a five-set event on the Boston Common, took place as part of the Mid-Century Boston Jubilee.

In May 1950, the City of Boston held a four-day extravaganza, the Mid-Century Boston Jubilee, to prove to the nation, and perhaps to itself, that the city still had a pulse. Every facet of the local economy was tanking, and Mayor John Hynes and the business community needed to talk up the city’s prospects for job growth, prosperity… the usual.

The captains of industry bankrolling the Jubilee knew that a good party needs plenty of music, and the citizens of the olde towne sampled everything from the Gillette Safety Razor Company Glee Club to the Boston English High School Band to Louie Prima’s big band. The Jubilee’s Big Deal was the Saturday night baked bean supper, served with ham and brown bread on long banquet tables set up on the Common. “10,000 Sit Down to Baked Beans on Common; 30,000 Turned Away” said the Globe’s headline the next day. Al Bandera’s Garden City Band played through dinner, and Burl Ives strolled through the crowd, reprising his popular hit, “Gimme Cracked Corn and I Don’t Care” to great applause.

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