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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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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