The Troy Street Observer

The Joe Gordon Story, Part 1: Boston

Trumpeter Joe Gordon was only 35 when he died in 1963, and he was in and out of the limelight during his too-brief career. Relatively little is known about him, and it seems like the same few biographical sentences copied from The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz appear on website after website. With the anniversary of his birth approaching, I thought it was time to dig deeper into Gordon’s history.

Photo of Joe Gordon, 1954
From back cover of 1954 LP, Introducing Joe Gordon

Part 1 of this three-part post covers Joe’s early years, mainly spent in Boston, and stops in 1953, the year Joe met Clifford Brown. Part 2 covers his hard bop and big band years, from 1954 with Art Blakey to his flight to West Coast in 1958. Part 3 covers his final years in California, ending with the tragic fire that killed him in 1963.

Gordon’s was an original and confident voice, and writers such as Nat Hentoff, John Tynan and John S. Wilson noted with approval his big sound, clean, articulate attack, and creative solos brimming with ideas. In terms of influences, Joe himself said: “I always seem to have liked Miles’ melodic thing with Dizzy’s drive, but actually it would be hard to say which one of the trumpet players I did follow. I always seemed to have a scope wide enough to employ everyone’s style.”

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May 12, 1952: Sabby, Symphony Sid and WBMS

Photo of Symphony Sid
At the mic at WBMS. Charlie Parker called him “Symphonic Sidney.”

May 12 was the start of busy week for Norman Furman, the general manager at Boston’s WHEE radio, 1090 on the AM dial. The owners wanted a new sound, and Furman went to work on that immediately upon his April arrival. On May 12, he had some results.

First, a new deejay was starting that day. Sabby Lewis, the man who personified Boston jazz in the 1940s, would host a one-hour show, six days a week, in the early evening. (Find more on Lewis here, here and here.) “He will be,” announced the Boston Chronicle, “the first colored band leader disc jockey ever in Boston.” Neither the Chronicle nor anyone else said Lewis was the first African-American deejay. He wasn’t. That was Eddy Petty at WVOM. But hiring Lewis demonstrated that Furman, who introduced all-black programming to WLIB in New York City, intended to bring more of that programming to WHEE.

During the week of May 12, the station changed its call letters to WBMS, for “World’s Best Music Station,” its original call when the station first went on the air in 1947. The Boston newspapers carried the announcement on May 19.

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Dec 22, 1949: B Sharp Boston

Today’s post may, or may not, have something to do with Boston jazz, and determining whether it does might require the services of an Ellington scholar. The subject is “B Sharp Boston,” recorded by Duke Ellington in New York on December 22, 1949, and issued on a Columbia Priceless Edition single.

Record label, B Sharp Boston
“B Sharp Boston,” Priceless Editions PE-7, 1951

“B Sharp Boston” might be Duke’s musical reaction to the events recounted in this blog’s Dec 18 post on the breakup of the Sabby Lewis Orchestra. Sabby was well known in New York, and the breakup would have been big news in the jazz community there. Ellington was Sabby’s friend, and Duke admired his piano playing. And the friendships went up and down the line in both bands—some grew up together in Boston, others worked together in New York, and everybody knew everybody. I’m sure Duke had all the sad details on the breakup before he sat down to lunch on December 19.

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Dec 18, 1949: Last Call for the Sabby Lewis Orchestra

“Sabby Lewis is really rollin’ at the Show Boat!” gushed George Clarke in his Daily Record column of December 7, 1949 (earlier Lewis entries here and here). “And with Jimmy Tyler back in the fold, plus a new and fabulous trumpeter, the band is hotter than ever.” That fabulous trumpeter was none other than Cat Anderson.

Photo of Sabby Lewis
Sabby Lewis and Al Morgan, 1945

The Lewis Orchestra never had such punch, with Anderson joining longtime brass men Gene Caines and Maceo Bryant, and Tyler rejoining Bill Dorsey and Dan Turner in the sax section. Lewis, Al Morgan, and Joe Booker formed an unbeatable rhythm section, and Marilyn Kilroy handled the vocals. This was a formidable band.

Sabby brought the orchestra to the Show Boat, at 252 Huntington Avenue, in late November, leaving his home base at the Hi-Hat. It was a questionable decision. The club had no established clientele, and certainly no jazz clientele, because it had cycled through numerous entertainment policies in the postwar years and none of them had clicked. In fact, jazz fans’ impressions of the place were probably negative because of the bad feelings surrounding the closure of the Zanzibar Club there in 1948. Finally, the Show Boat was too far away from the cluster of clubs around Mass Ave and Columbus, where all the people were.

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Sabby Lewis, Part 1: The War Years

William Sebastian Lewis was born in Middleburg, North Carolina, on November 1, 1914, and raised in Philadelphia. That’s where he took up the piano, playing rent parties and little jobs until his family moved to the Boston area in 1932. Sabby joined Tasker Crosson’s Statesmen in 1935, and formed his first band in 1936. He played at Boston’s Savoy Cafe for the first time in 1940, thus beginning his most vital decade in music.

Photo of Sabby Lewis
Sabby Lewis and Jerry Heffron, late 1930s

Lewis was a fine pianist from the Earl Hines school, but his playing didn’t make him important. Two other things did. First, of course, he had a great band for a long time, and second, he did much to shape the Boston environment and make it a credible place for jazz.

Lewis hired the best musicians and arrangers in Boston for his orchestra (first a septet, then an octet), and kept its core intact through the decade. The two trumpeters, Eugene Caines and Maceo Bryant (who doubled on trombone), joined Lewis before 1940, as did drummer Joe Booker. Veteran bassist/vocalist Al Morgan arrived in 1942, and critics at the time credited him with bringing the drive to the Lewis band. All were still with Lewis when the band broke up in December 1949. (Caines left the band for a time in 1943, and Cat Anderson replaced him. Booker left twice, in 1943, replaced by Osie Johnson, and 1946, replaced by Eddie Feggan.)
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July 8, 1943: Boston’s Savoy Cafe Is Open Again

Image of Pete BrownAfter the fire that destroyed the Cocoanut Grove in November 1942, the City of Boston ordered 52 night spots to close, and stay closed, until their fire protection systems passed a  safety inspection. The order took effect on December 1, and by December 5 places were reopening. The Savoy Cafe, at 461 Columbus Ave, was cleared to reopen, but it did not. Owner Steve Connolly kept the room dark and let the lease run out.

Even before the fire, rumors were circulating that Connolly was looking for a new South End location for his club, with the likely site being the former Royal Palms, at 410 Mass Ave, a club that had closed in 1939. The rumors proved correct, and Connolly reopened on Mass Ave on July 8.

The new room was bigger than the one left behind. The interior walls were lined with mirrors (many of which eventually gave way to murals), and the exterior front was made of red brick below and glass block above. Press releases said the room was air-conditioned, but I doubt it, given how people were conserving fuel during wartime.
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