The Troy Street Observer

Boston Jazz Chronicles, Blizzard Edition

Photo of traffic in snowstorm, 1967
Crawling on the Southeast Expressway, 1967

We in the Boston area in 2015 are saying “enough, already!” when it comes to the interminable cycle of snow-cold-snow-cold. I looked through the archives to see how the music fared on other cold and snowy nights, and found snapshots of 1943, 1958, 1967, and 1978.

Our first winter wonderland stop is Symphony Hall, where the Duke Ellington Orchestra performed Black, Brown, and Beige in its entirety on Jan 28, 1943. It was the second of only three complete performances of the 43-minute work, Duke’s “tone parallel to the history of the American Negro.” The critics had not been kind when the work premiered at Carnegie Hall the previous Saturday, and the press release let the people know it would be “serious jazz…with no comedy or capers,” but none of that deterred the Boston audience; it was standing room only and the box office turned away 1,200, all on a day when over a foot of snow blanketed the city.

Although Black, Brown, and Beige was received more warmly in Boston than in New York, the praise wasn’t unqualified. Wrote reviewer Eugene Benyas, “I can only report that Duke lived up to and confirmed all but the very highest expectations. If “B, B, and B” did not successfully bring jazz to the concert stage, it did not deny the existence of Ellington’s genius.” The most generous applause went to other pieces. Rex Stewart stopped the show with his solo on “Boy Meets Horn,” and Ray Nance played splendid violin on “Bakiff.”

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Apr 20, 1959: Lady Day’s Last Visit

Photo of Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday, 1958

Billie Holiday opened her last engagement in Boston on April 20, 1959, at  Storyville. For Holiday, who had not worked in Boston for three-and-a-half years, it was a triumphant return.

I believe Holiday first came to the Hub in August 1937 with Basie’s band, singing at the Ritz Roof. She made history here in March 1938 when she joined the Artie Shaw Orchestra at the Roseland-State Ballroom. The 1940s are dotted with Holiday appearances, but Boston was really reintroduced to her in February 1951, during a ten-day engagement at the Latin Quarter.

Boston in 1951 had the Hi-Hat and Storyville competing for jazz talent. Holiday, who had lost her cabaret card, could not work in the New York clubs, so the Boston situation was to her advantage—between 1951 and 1955, she worked week-long engagements at Storyville five times and at the Hi-Hat four. The last was in October 1955, and although she sang at the North Shore Jazz Festival in Lynn in 1957, she wasn’t seen in Boston again until April 1959. On this visit, her accompanist, Mal Waldron, was joined by bassist Champ Jones and drummer Roy Haynes.

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October 12, 1952: Brubeck, Taylor-Made

Running respected jazz clubs like the Jazz Workshop and Scullers might be Fred Taylor’s foremost claim to fame, but it isn’t his only contribution to jazz. He’s also been a recording engineer, and one of his efforts produced an album that played an important role in the early careers of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond.

Cover of Jazz at Storyville
Jazz at Storyville, Fantasy 3-8, 1953

Taylor was a student at Boston University in 1952, and had a jazz group in which he played drums. The pianist knew Brubeck from his army days, and raved about him, so when Brubeck came to Storyville that October, Taylor lugged his reel-to-reel tape recorder to the club and obtained Brubeck’s permission to tape the session.

Boston was infamous in jazz circles for its “eight day week”—the musicians’ union placed no restriction on the number of consecutive days a musician might work without a day off, so a club engagement in the Hub was seven nights plus a Sunday matinee. That’s why the Brubeck Quartet was spending the afternoon of Sunday, October 12, at Storyville. However, bassist Wyatt “Bull” Ruther missed the first set, so Brubeck, Paul Desmond, and drummer Lloyd Davis played as a trio. (The unheralded Davis left Brubeck to join the percussion section of the San Francisco Symphony in 1954, where he remained until 1989.)

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October 3: Happy Birthday, George Wein

I can’t possibly do justice to George Wein, born in Boston on this day in 1925, in a single blog post. I can’t even do justice in one post to his 12 years on the Boston scene, the beginning of his 65 years (and counting) as a vital contributor to the world of music.

Photo of George and Joyce Wein
George and Joyce Wein at Newport, ca. 1960

In The Boston Jazz Chronicles, the chapter about Wein is titled “Dynamo,” because he was a man constantly in motion. And it was during the 1950s, when he was the most important figure in Boston jazz, that Wein began his rise to national prominence.

Wein grew up in Newton and graduated from Newton High School (so did Ralph Burns, Serge Chaloff, Hal McKusick, and Roz Cron, all within a few years of each other), and while still in his teens, George was playing piano in the buckets of blood (yes, at Izzy Ort’s!) and sitting in at jam sessions. Then he got drafted. After his discharge in 1946, the jazz odyssey began in earnest.

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May 14, 1951: A Homecoming for Johnny Hodges

The Johnny Hodges All-Stars opened for a week at Storyville on May 14, 1951, and it was a big step forward for both the star and the club.

Saxophonist Johnny Hodges, born in Cambridge, raised in Boston’s South End, inspired by Bechet, and a member of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra since early 1928, finally decided to go out on his own in early 1951. After 23 years with Ellington, he figured it was time, a move encouraged by the impresario Norman Granz.

Photo of Johnny Hodges
He wasn’t always an Ellingtonian: Johnny Hodges

The Boston date at Storyville was one of the first outside of New York for the All-Stars, a group formed shortly after Hodges declared his independence. In the band were the Count Basie veteran, trumpeter Emmett Berry, and five others with ties to the Ellington. Trombonist Lawrence Brown and drummer Sonny Greer left Ellington with Hodges. Tenor saxophonist Al Sears and bassist Lloyd Trotman had played with Ellington in the 1940s. Finally, pianist Billy Strayhorn was still Ellington’s closest musical collaborator.

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April 27, 1959: Monk in Jeopardy

Thelonious Monk was supposed to be at Storyville on April 27, but instead he ended up at Grafton State Hospital.

Monk by Swierzy
Thelonious Monk by Waldemar Swierzy, 1984

April 1959 was a significant month at Storyville, with three noteworthy engagements in a row. The first was Erroll Garner for ten days. Garner in 1959 had achieved concert hall status, and he didn’t need to work clubs anymore because he could fill Symphony Hall. This would be his only nightclub engagement of the year. After Garner, on April 20, Billie Holiday opened for a week. It was her final Boston appearance, and she died a few months later in July, age 44. Then came Monk. It was his first time at Storyville, and although I don’t have a Monk itinerary to verify it, I believe this was his first appearance in Boston since 1950 at the Hi-Hat.

Monk’s quartet, with saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Art Taylor, opened April 27 for a week. The band was staying at the Bostonian Hotel on Boylston Street (the building is now owned by Berklee College), but Monk wanted to stay at the Copley Square Hotel, where Storyville was located. For whatever reason, he was refused a room. An agitated Monk missed the first set, played two songs in the second set and left the bandstand, then played the same two songs in the third set and again stopped playing. Wein called it quits for the night.

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Not Your Everyday Jazz Club Lineup

On April 13, 1952, Storyville wound up what must have been one of the strangest weeks in its history: a triple bill, with John Carradine reciting Shakespeare, Johnny Windhurst playing New York Dixieland, and Sam Gary singing folk songs.

Photos of Carradine, Windhurst, Gary
Strange Bedfellows Dept: John Carradine, Johnny Windhurst, and Sam Gary

John Carradine was a towering presence on stage, performing the roles of Shakespearean heavies like Macbeth and Hamlet. His most famous film role was that of the preacher Casey in Grapes of Wrath, but the prolific actor is credited with well over 200 films. In the 1940s, he formed a touring theater company, and to keep it on the road, he took parts in B-movie horror films. His resume includes many forgettable films like Voodoo Man, Half Human, and Astro Zombies. Performing at Storyville was a far better way to raise funds. George Wein said he learned more about Shakespeare over one dinner with Carradine than he had in four years of college. Carradine didn’t read, he recited, and he apparently held the audience spellbound. Although he threw a scare into everybody by fainting on stage one night, the engagement was deemed a success and Wein invited Carradine back for a week in December.


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