Make Room for Boston in Jazz History

October 9, 2012

By Nat Hentoff

For many years, I’ve been pining for a history of jazz in the city where, at 12 – electrified by Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare” – this life force became my life vocation in learning and writing about its regenerating surprises.  At last, Richard Vacca has brought back to life The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937-1962 (Troy Street Publishing, Belmont, Mass.   Also available on Amazon).

I’m in the book, having been immersed in the continually expanding Boston jazz scene from the late 1930s to 1953 when I left to become New York editor of Down Beat on the basis of jazz reporting form Boston I’d done for it and other publications.

So thorough is Vacca’s research that I kept learning, for example, “there were black musicians playing jazz (in Boston) in the 1910s, the same decade in which they formed their own local in the American Federation Musicians – as also happened for years in other cities.

By the time I was part of the scene with my own jazz radio program on WMEX plus radio remotes from clubs, the audiences in some of them were segregated.  But, as Vacca demonstrates, their growing number, and ballrooms booking big jazz bands, led to more gigs for local players and frequent appearances by such visitors as Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Charlee Barnet, Sidney Bechet.  Both on and off of WMEX, getting to know many of the musicians, my first mentor on writing about jazz was Duke Ellington.  “Do not,” he said sternly, “categorize musicians.  Open yourself to the music of each one and some, like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, will stay with you.”

“And don’t,” Duke added, “get limited by such terms as ‘old time Dixieland’ or ‘cutting edge boppers.’”

And learning about Duke, at a ballroom where the band was playing, I heard a song entirely new to this chronicler of his music.  At a break, I whispered to Harry Carney, “What was that?”

“I don’t know,” said the amiable baritone saxophonist.  “He just wrote it.”

An enlivening and sometimes enraging part of the Boston jazz scene was George Frazier who, at The Boston Herald, was the first regular jazz columnist on a big-city daily newspaper.  He also had a radio program on a network-affiliated station on which he tested those listeners who had already concluded that certain musicians were hip and others were square.

As far as I knew, this was unique to Boston.  He’d play a recording without immediately giving the musicians’ names, often stunning listeners suddenly moved by someone they’d dismissed as square.  If I were teaching Jazz History, I’d try that challenge.

On the club scene, the one I often almost lived in when I wasn’t working was the Savoy Café at the edge of the black section of town.   Frazier wrote: “Boston jazz grew up at the Savoy.”

Hyperbolic, but the club band led by Sabby Lewis was the most consistently astounding one in town and the Sunday jam sessions often had memorable surprises.  At one, New Orleans clarinetist Edmund Hall was leading the combo and a kid, looking to be in his early teens, asked to sit in on the drums.

Hall welcomed him and the youngster lifted the band and audience into swinging delight.  His name, I found, was Roy Haynes and he went to a high school near where I lived.

The Savoy was one of the most racially integrated clubs in the city or probably New England, leading cops to enter the men’s room when not occupied – I sneakily saw this – and pocket the soaps and other amenities and later charge manager Steve Connolly with hygienic violations.  Somehow Steve, always resourcefully in charge, disposed of the charges.

Another club where Boston jazz also took fruitful root was the Ken Club.  Before I was old enough to be legally admitted, I lied about my age and one night was exhilarated by a combo fronted by Wild Bill Davison and Sidney Bechet.  Hot jazz beyond and thermometer!

Richard Vacca sums up the singular value of the Ken Club to jazz history: “In its ten years of operation, the Ken was the downtown home for small-group swing and Dixieland, and it was important to Boston jazz because it created playing opportunities for local musicians, from high schoolers on up.

“Teenagers played with jazz masters.  You don’t find a lot of that anymore.”

And there was Wally’s Paradise, still in operation, opened in 1947 by a black businessman, Joseph Walcott, who had operated a taxi service.  One of his frequent fares was legendary Boston politician, James Michael Curley, whom I’d interviewed as a staffer at WMEX.  Again, Richard Vacca gets to the core of the breakthrough by the first black jazz club owner in Boston when, fortunately, the mayor was James Michael Curley:

“In 1946, a black businessman did not have the clout or the capital to obtain the necessary permits and licenses to operate a nightclub.  And Curley was always on the lookout for votes, including the black voters to be welcomed at Wally’s”

It was at Wally’s that I got advice from a jazz musician that has been of lifelong value to me.  This has not been the first such jazz-born wisdom.  I was covering Ben Webster’s gig there.  After he had left Duke Ellington to lead a group, Ben found that some club owners around the country wouldn’t pay the extra money for his rhythm section.  He had to find local swingers.

Sitting next to Ben at the bar in Wally’s one night, it had been all too evident that not even the mighty Ben could get these local cats to move into his groove.   Suddenly Ben turned toward me and said: “Listen, kid, when the rhythm section ain’t making it, go for yourself!”

That has leapt to my mind in arguments with editors and wives.

Also a prominent figure and influence in Boston was “The Jazz Priest,” Father Norman O’Connor.  Richard Vacca, of course, gets us to know him well.

And he was the first priest I really got to know, one of our primary interests being so mutual.  The now preeminent Boston jazz historian, Richard Vacca notes: “O’Connor was into everything that had to do with jazz… He found a place for jazz music in church services.”  At the 1954 first Newport Jazz Festival, produced by George Wein (who has a notable multi-dimensional impact on Boston and international jazz) “O’Connor was emcee at Newport and every festival thereafter for the time he was in Boston.”

Also, in what may have been unique in any other city’s jazz history, Father O’Connor “discretely helped in solving the problems [of musicians’] everyday lives, arranging for medical care, family counseling, financial assistance, or housing.  Nobody will ever know how many members of is flock helped this way.”

Whatever our religion or non-religion, many in Boston’s jazz family were blessed.

Among my most vivid Boston jazz memories are suck of the local musicians as violinist Ray Perry.   I had heard and marveled at Stuff Smith, but when seeking serenity, there was, as Vacca writes, Perry, “wordlessly singing the melody of a song as he bowed it on the violin, singing an octave below his playing.”

Years later, I was still telling jazz players around the country about Boston’s stirring story-telling Joe Gordon and the always intriguingly inventive pianist Jaki Byard who, as I am quoted in this book, was “a pervasive influence on nearly every young Boston musician who was interested in discovering new jazz routes.”

Years later, in New York, when I ran the Candid jazz label, it was with great pride and pleasure that this Bostonian recorded Jaki Byard.  And also Cecil Taylor, from whom I first began to learn more of how to listen when we attended a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert together.  Another beyond-category Boston jazz force was cornetist Ruby Braff whom I’ve known since boyhood.

The Boston jazz scene has been the foundation of my postgraduate jazz education as it also was for global jazz personality, George Wein, who discovered in Boston how to become, as Vacca genuflects, “pianist, club owner, artists’ manager, concert promoter, newspaper columnist, disc jockey, talent scout, television producer, university instructor, festival organizer, and record company executive.”

I remember the fledgling George as the sometime house pianist and vocalist at the Savoy Café, often singing to the delight of young women there from Radclife and Simmons colleges, “Oh looky there, ain’t she pretty!”

During my time in Boston, there were startup organizations trying to attract more listeners to jazz, but getting no interest, let along encouragement from public officials or city cultural institutions.

But in recent years, I doubt that any city in the country has had anywhere near a more far-reaching organization than JazzBoston, headed by Pauline Bilsky, with, as I wrote when with Jazz Times, “a wide variety of collaboratively planned, independently produced performances and educational events in all kinds of venues throughout the city of Boston,” along with its annual JazzBoston week heralded, as usual, by a proclamation from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.  JazzBoston should be studied as a model for jazz communities in other cities who want to expand a durable impact on all ages.

And most fittingly, among this year’s JazzBoston week events has been the “Launch of The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places, and Nightlife, 1937-1962,” by Richard Vacca.

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