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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Mar 13, 1950: “The High Priest of Bebop” at the Hi-Hat

Thelonius Monk first worked in Boston with Coleman Hawkins at the Savoy, in March 1944. Six years later he returned to Boston, this time as the headliner, for a weeklong stay at the Hi-Hat, opening on March 13.

Monk by Swierzy
Thelonius Monk by Waldemar Swierzy, 1984

George Clarke, of the Daily Record, mentioned that Monk was in town in his March 18 column. He reported that “If you want to see what a real be-bopper looks like, take a run out to the Hi-Hat where, at the moment, one Thelonius Monk, who calls himself “the high priest of bebop,” is holding forth, be-bop hat, horn-rimmed glasses, tiny goatee, and all…. Thelonius—and he swears that’s his real name—claims to antedate Dizzy Gillespie and all other exponents of musical double-talk, saying he was bopping, or maybe beeping, way back in 1932.”

Yes, Clarke was insulting, but it doesn’t do much good to complain about a columnist’s ignorance 65 years after the fact. He was, most likely, operating in the “bebop-as-gimmick” fog common in mainstream media at the time; perhaps he even considered as legitimate the greeting exchanged by Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Carter in pages of Life magazine in October 1948. And Clarke was a newspaperman of an earlier time, who loved the Harlemania bands of Ellington and Calloway and never had much use for modern jazz.

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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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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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