The Troy Street Observer

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 25, 1948: A Horn for Frankie Newton

Photo of Frankie Newton
Frankie Newton

Trumpeter Frankie Newton moved from New York to Boston at least twice in the late 1940s. In Boston, in 1946-47, he lived in a building at 702 Tremont Street, where the firehouse stands today. Then he was back in New York, where bad luck struck in early summer 1948: an apartment fire destroyed all his belongings. That included his horns, and although Newton played mainly trumpet, he also owned a cornet, a bass cornet, and perhaps a few other horns, too. All lost. After that he moved back to Boston.

Newton enjoyed great popularity in Boston, and had since his triumphant engagements at the Savoy and Ken Club during World War II. Some of his Boston fans heard the news of the fire and organized a benefit to help out. The ringleaders in this effort were former members of the then-defunct Jazz Society, a volunteer organization that had staged some 40 concerts between spring 1944 and spring 1946. (This group was originally called the Boston Jazz Society, but it had no connection to the group of that name active in the 1970s-1990s.) Richard Schmidt, the society’s former president, announced it was “coming out of retirement” to stage the event, a “Rent Party,” to raise a little cash so Newton could buy a new horn.
First order of business was lining up a room, and Schmidt asked manager Steve Connolly to open the Savoy, closed for the summer, for one evening. Second was lining up a band. Two officers of the Jazz Society, bassist John Field and pianist Ev Schwarz, organized a house group, and lined up musicians like Sabby Lewis and Ruby Braff to sit in. As a special guest for an added draw, and they recruited trumpeter Johnny Windhurst.

The third order of business should have been publicity, but with time short and no budget, little was done. George Clarke gave the event a mention in his Daily Record column, and former Jazz Society member Nat Hentoff surely mentioned it on his WMEX radio program, but there wasn’t time for any serious promotion.

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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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March 1944: With the Hawk at the Savoy Cafe

Photo of Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins

Sometimes, as a jazz town, Boston had it good. Such was the case in March 1944, when the king of the tenor saxophonists, Coleman Hawkins, brought his new, forward-looking, sextet to the Savoy Cafe for three weeks. This was a special band, playing at a crucial time.

Coleman Hawkins was always fascinated by new developments in jazz, and unlike many of his swing-based peers, he heard what was going on at Minton’s, and he understood it. He assembled a new band in early 1944, and he hired three of those adventurous young musicians from Minton’s: pianist Thelonius Monk, trumpeter Benny Harris, and drummer Denzil Best. This trio also handled the arranging duties. Eddie “Bass” Robinson was the bassist. And there was one more hire, another saxophonist, none other than Don Byas.

Byas was an established star, even a rival to Hawkins himself. Byas spent time with Don Redman and Andy Kirk, and took Lester Young’s place in the Basie band. Like Hawkins, he understood what Monk and Harris were doing with harmony, and like Hawkins, he gravitated to it. The tenor sound on the bandstand must have been enormous.
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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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