The Troy Street Observer

Bob Wilber and Wilbermania in Boston

In January 1949, when Boston’s modern jazz pot was beginning to boil, the most popular jazzman in the clubs represented a different camp entirely. It was a Sidney Bechet disciple named Bob Wilber. Saxophonist and clarinetist Wilber, who died August 4, 2019 at age 91, was a frequent visitor to the Hub between late 1947 and late 1951. Those were critical years for Wilber, learning years, and he treated Boston’s Savoy Cafe as his personal woodshed. In 1949, Wilber was a near-constant presence at the Savoy, at a time when state law said he wasn’t even old enough to buy a beer there.

Photo of Bob Wilber, 1947
Bob Wilber, 1947

Bob Wilber studied intensively with Sidney Bechet in 1946-47, living in his home and recording with him. Then Sidney sent his pupil to Steve Connolly’s Savoy Cafe, where Bechet himself played a triumphant engagement in 1945. Wilber’s trio opened in November 1947. His high-school pal Dick Wellstood was on piano and the venerable Kaiser Marshall, himself a former Bostonian, played drums.

Wilber toured France in summer 1948 with Mezz Mezzrow, a trip that included an appearance at the Nice International Jazz Festival. In October he was back at the Savoy, with his best-known 1940s band: Henry Goodwin, trumpet; Jimmy Archey, trombone; Dick Wellstood, piano; Pops Foster, bass; and Tommy Benford, drums. This band packed the Savoy nightly. Connolly tore up their contract and announced they were staying indefinitely.

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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.

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Sam Parkins and the Excalibur Jazz Band

Leroy Parkins, who usually went by “Sam,” was a musical wonder, and if a character with a more varied resume shows up on this blog, I’ll be surprised. Born in Boston on September 23, 1926, his claim to fame in this post is his Excalibur Jazz Band. But Parkins played with bop with Dick Twardzik, R&B with Sam Rivers, mainstream swing with Dave Frishberg, and trad with Danny Barker. Sam played in every musical setting imaginable over a career that stretched across six decades.

Ad for Excalibur Jazz Band
The Excalibur Jazz Band at the Savoy Cafe, 1955

Parkins was still playing at the time of his death in 2009. But in music circles he’s probably better known for his work from the 1960s into the 1990s as a producer and recording engineer. He  recorded both jazz and classical music, for which he was nominated for four Grammy awards. Along the way Parkins was also a composer of film music, piano sonatas, choral works, electronic music, and chamber jazz.

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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 trumpet, 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.

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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.

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March 15, 1945: Bunk Bugs Bechet, Gets Boot

“Bunk in Beantown with Bechet Band,” read Down Beat’s headline over an article describing Sidney Bechet’s arrival at the Savoy Cafe, accompanied by New Orleans trumpeter William “Bunk” Johnson. Bechet, also from New Orleans, was an early jazz pioneer and regarded as a master of the clarinet and soprano saxophone. Johnson, though active in early New Orleans, never let accuracy stand in the way of a good story, and his actual role and influence remained unclear. He was inactive in the thirties and “rediscovered” in the early 1940s, and in March 1945 he was a member of Bechet’s new band.

Photo of Sidney Bechet Quintet
Fred Moore, Pops Foster, Bunk Johnson, Sidney Bechet, and Hank Duncan in Boston, 1945

The engagement did not go well. Bechet, not a man of mild temperment himself, clashed almost immediately with the unpredictable and hard-drinking Johnson. When Johnson was on, he was good, but he wasn’t on very often. Nat Hentoff, who was broadcasting these sessions over WMEX radio, told the story that Bechet would sit down front with shots of whisky lined up on his table, listening to Bunk play. When Sidney didn’t like what he heard, he’d down a shot and throw the glass at Johnson.

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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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