The Troy Street Observer

Floyd Williams: “No Hobbies. Just Music.”

Boston-born Floyd Williams had a long career in jazz, first as a musician and then as an educator. In his home town, the drummer was known by his nickname, “Floogie.” No one around now knows how he got it. Later in his career, people knew him as Floyd Williams.

Head shot of Floyd "Floogie" Williams
Floyd “Floogie” Williams

His Boston story is an intriguing one. As with many artists of past decades who did not achieve great stardom in New York, there are facts about his story we don’t know. We do know he attended Boston public schools, started on piano as a boy, switched to the drums, gigged with friends while still at Roxbury High School, and studied briefly at the New England Conservatory. I have read that Johnny Hodges was his godfather, and I am still looking into that.

Legendary godfather or not, Floogie Williams earned his own recognition as a drummer in the late 1940s, at a time when Boston was incubating an exciting brand of modern jazz. The numerous G.I. Bill students at the music schools were mixing with the local musicians in the clubs clustered around Mass Ave and Columbus Ave. Disc jockey Symphony Sid Torin called this intersection “the jazz corner of Boston.” Williams was a regular on the bandstand at the Sunnyside Cafe, where he worked with saxophonists Sam Rivers and Gigi Gryce. He also played occasionally in the big band of Jimmie Martin, where he met trumpeters Joe Gordon and Lennie Johnson, and Jaki Byard—who played trombone!

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July 12, 1956: Tom Wilson Records Sun Ra on Transition

Cover of Jazz By Sun Ra
Jazz By Sun Ra, Transition TRLP-10, released 1957.

Tom Wilson, the man of many firsts in the recording industry, started Transition Records in Cambridge with two goals. First, he wanted to record leading-edge jazz, folk, and classical musicians who were undiscovered or being ignored by the major labels. Second, he wanted to record them live, in the club or concert hall, or before a studio audience. That’s where Wilson saw the best opportunities for capturing  creative, spontaneous performances.

Wilson wasn’t restricting his search for talented musicians to Boston. Transition recorded three albums by the Detroit trumpeter Donald Byrd, including his first, Byrd Jazz, (TRLP-5) in 1955, and his most recent, Byrd Blows on Beacon Hill (TRLP-17), in May. Wilson also recorded trombonist Curtis Fuller and saxophonist Pepper Adams, also from Detroit. And he traveled to Chicago to record Sun Ra.

No major labels were looking at Sun Ra. He had released 45s on his own Saturn label, but no LPs, and the Transition session would be his first for any label other than his own. As it turned out, Transition was his only label besides Saturn in the 1950s.

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May 7, 1956: Byrd Blows on Beacon Hill

Tom Wilson produced three LPs for trumpeter Donald Byrd on Transition Records: Byrd-Jazz (TRLP-5, recorded in Detroit in August 1955), Byrd’s Eye View (TRLP-4, recorded in Cambridge in December 1955), and  Byrd Blows On Beacon Hill (TRLP-17, recorded in Boston on May 7, 1956).

LP Cover of Byrd Blows on Beacon Hill
Byrd Blows on Beacon Hill, TRLP-17

Byrd Blows On Beacon Hill was a quartet date, with bassist Doug Watkins, pianist Ray Santisi, and drummer Jimmy Zitano. Watkins, like Byrd, was a product of the rich Detroit postwar jazz scene, and like Byrd, moved to New York in 1954. Watkins was the original bass player in the Jazz Messengers, and Byrd joined that group when he replaced the original trumpeter, Kenny Dorham.

Santisi and Zitano, of course, were part of the Jazz Workshop crew at the Stable, which is where Byrd first heard them. They had recorded for Wilson on Transition’s first release, Jazz in a Stable.

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Mar 25, 1931: Tom Wilson of Transition Records Born

On this day, record producer and studio wizard Tom Wilson was born Waco, Texas. Tom Wilson, as much as anybody in the music business, had a feel for how music should sound in the fifties and sixties. He  proved it, first with his Boston-based company, Transition Pre-Recorded Tapes, Inc. and then with United Artists, Savoy, Columbia, and Verve.

Photo of Tom Wilson
Tom Wilson, mid-1960s

Thomas Blanchard Wilson was a 1954 cum laude graduate of Harvard, where in his spare time he  worked at radio station WHRB and founded the Harvard New Jazz Society. He was also president of the Harvard Young Republicans Club.

Wilson started Transition in 1955, recording his first LP on March 13 of that year. It was Jazz in a Stable, recorded live in the Huntington Avenue club of that name and featuring the Jazz Workshop Quintet then starring at the club—Varty Haroutunian, John Neves, Herb Pomeroy, Ray Santisi, and Jimmy Zitano. Other recordings followed, perhaps 15 in all, among them LPs by trumpeter Johnny Windhurst, saxophonist Lucky Thompson, bassist Doug Watkins, and pianists Cecil Taylor (his first), and Sun Ra (also his first). There were three LPs by trumpeter Donald Byrd. Wilson also released folk and contemporary classical music.

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March 13, 1955: Jazz in a Stable Recorded

Jazz in a Stable Cover
Jazz in a Stable, TRLP-1

March 13 is the anniversary of a pair of record dates pertinent to the Boston scene. The first, in 1955, was for Jazz in a Stable, by the Jazz Workshop Quintet. This was the house band at the Stable, 20 Huntington Ave, across the street from Storyville. If there was a leader, it was tenor saxophonist Varty Haroutunian (we’ll celebrate his birthday here on March 23), but over time people have associated the recording with Herb Pomeroy because the trumpet star became the best-known of the group. The others were pianist Ray Santisi, bassist John Neves, and drummer Jimmy Zitano, “J.Z.”

This recording, made live at the Stable, also marked the first album made by Tom Wilson’s fledgling Transition Records, and we’ll celebrate Tom Wilson’s birthday here on March 25.

The tunes are mostly standards (“Dear Old Stockholm,” “Off Minor,” “One Bass Hit,” “Moten Swing,”) and the record was favorably reviewed, earning five stars from Down Beat. Metronome called it “nicely turned and almost always exuberant.”  Nat Hentoff, writing in Down Beat (Dec 28, 1955) wrote: “Trumpeter Pomeroy is certainly the standout, but the other four are also good, among Boston’s best and indicative of what you can hear there on the modern kick; mostly familiar and nicely turned and almost always exuberant.” Hentoff gave the record five stars.

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