The Shape of Jazz That Was

It was on Washington Street, walking by Krey’s music store at age 11, that I was first drawn to what has become a lifetime immersion in jazz. On the store’s public address system, I heard music so compelling, so exciting, that I shouted out in glee and wonder — something a Boston boy in those years did not usually do in public.

Rushing in, I was told that those penetrating sounds were on a recording by Artie Shaw of his theme “Nightmare.” Bill Ingalls, the clerk who gave me that information, added that he — Ingalls — had a regular jazz program on WCOP. I became a devoted listener. I also began cutting Boston Latin School classes on Mondays. After catching the burlesque show at the Old Howard, I’d buy Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington records, three for a dollar, at a store nearby, using money I earned first as a delivery boy on a fruit wagon and later at Sunday’s Candies.

In the jazz history books, New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, and the Central Avenue zone of Los Angeles are traditionally cited as the key nurturing places of jazz.

But Boston — as I can attest first-hand — also merits a place as a lively center of swinging homegrown soloists and bands as well as visiting members of the jazz pantheon who often stayed for extensive gigs.

Another witness to Boston as a cradle of jazz was Malcolm X. He and I later became friends in New York, but I wasn’t aware then that in the 1940s, as Malcolm Little, he lived with his sister Ella in Roxbury, where I was also growing up. Malcolm got a job as a shoeshine boy at the Roseland State Ballroom on Massachusetts Avenue, across from the Christian Science Center’s Mother Church. The stretch of Mass. Ave. between Huntington and Columbus was, by the late ’40s, Boston’s answer to 52nd Street in Manhattan — with not only the Roseland, but the Savoy Café, the Hi-Hat, Wally’s, and a handful of smaller clubs.

I was often at the Roseland, not to dance, but to hear, in awe, Ellington, Count Basie, and Jimmie Lunceford, among other sources of jazz legends. Malcolm also lists them as being there in his Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Every time Ellington played at the Roseland, I’d have my chin on the bandstand, as close as I could get to those other Roxbury residents, sax-section standouts Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, as well as the magisterial Ellington. When I’d hear an unfamiliar number, I’d ask Harry its name, and he’d usually say, “I don’t know. We just got it.” Ellington composed continually — on the road and in hotel rooms.

I learned to come early when he played the Roseland, because the stars of the band would compete as to who could show up the latest. Duke, while waiting for them, would improvise fragments of melody, unaccompanied, that I would later recognize among his standard compositions.

So far as I know, the first jazz column in a mainstream American newspaper was George Frazier’s in the Boston Herald (he later moved to the Globe). It was called “Sweet and Lowdown” (many years later, the title of Woody Allen’s jazz movie).

The elegantly sardonic Frazier turned me on to more wondrous players and such sensuously subtle singers as Lee Wiley. Frazier was on WEEI on Saturday mornings, and he made listening a challenge by announcing the personnel on the recordings only after they’d been played. The idea was to break listeners of their preconceptions about certain musicians. I later stole that approach when I had my own music program on radio station WMEX.

Listening to recordings and jazz on the air, however, was hardly sufficient. I wanted to be in the presence of jazz as it was being created. Looking older than my age, and already needing to shave, I found the Ken Club on Warrenton Street. There, one Sunday afternoon, I heard a set with cornetist Wild Bill Davison, who could have gotten an Army band to swing, alongside the moon-faced Sidney Bechet, a soprano saxophonist originally from New Orleans who was so powerful he almost blew Wild Bill off the stand.

Another room for “hot jazz,” as it was called then, was the Copley Terrace on Huntington Avenue. Trumpeter Max Kaminsky — one of the first Boston jazzmen to have made the big time (as a sideman to Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey) — brought a combo there in 1945. With him were Brad Gowans, the most inventive valve trombonist in all of jazz; bassist John Fields, a stalwart of the Boston jazz scene; and clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, who was the most original jazz soloist I’ve ever heard.

Pee Wee would venture into such uncharted terrain — harmonically and rhythmically — that his colleagues would often wonder how he could ever return. But he always did. One night, at a later Boston gig with Max, a New England Conservatory of Music student presented Pee Wee with a gift, a huge roll of music manuscript paper on which he had transcribed a series of Pee Wee’s solos during the week. Pee Wee unfurled the manuscript, stared, shook his head, and said, “I can’t play that!”

My second home, until I left Boston in 1953 to become New York editor of Down Beat, was the Savoy Café on Massachusetts Avenue, a short walk from Symphony Hall and on the edge of the black section of town. Advertised as “Boston’s Original Home of Jazz,” it was a long, narrow room with the bandstand crammed against the center of the wall on the right. Like the other jazz clubs, it was one of the few places in Boston where whites and blacks associated without being overly conscious of it. The cops, on the other hand, were sensitive to that breach of their code of racial separatism, and would occasionally come in for no apparent reason, go to the men’s room, pocket the soap and toilet paper, and issue a summons for unsanitary facilities.

Steve Connolly, the bartender and owner, was a large, amiable man, with no discernible prejudice against anyone, including the lesbians and numbers runners who were among the regulars. The bands he booked stayed for fairly long periods, so the musicians and the audiences got to know each other off the stand as well.

Trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen had an exuberant combo with trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, and I can still hear his “last call for alcohol” announcement before the final number. Another frequent headliner was clarinetist Edmond Hall — like Red, originally from New Orleans — who later became a member of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. Among the local musicians who worked with Edmond was pianist-vocalist George Wein, later an international jazz impresario. He became the first director of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and still runs it and numerous similar festivals today.

Both homegrown and visiting musicians would often come to the Savoy after their regular jobs elsewhere in town and participate in after-midnight jam sessions. One early morning, trumpeter “Hot Lips” Page sang the blues for more than an hour without repeating a lyric. And at a regular Sunday jam session at the club, a 15-year-old from Roxbury Memorial High School asked to sit in on drums. He stopped whatever conversations were going on as he lifted the band, the room, and a section of Massachusetts Avenue into an exhilarating groove. His name was Roy Haynes, and he would later become an international jazz icon.

Sidney Bechet also often came to the Savoy. Photographer Lee Tanner — a former Bostonian, now internationally known and shown — recalls an enormous banner in front of the Savoy proclaiming the return to town of the indomitable Bechet.

For one engagement, Bechet brought back an almost mythological figure, Bunk Johnson, an aged New Orleans trumpeter who had been long forgotten and was working in the cane fields. The resuscitated horn man found sudden fame and continental toasts too much to handle, and one night at the Savoy, many of his notes were clinkers. The next set, Bunk was alone in the front line as Bechet, seated at a table in front of the bandstand with a dozen snifters of cognac lined up in front of him, began throwing one of them at Bunk each time the trumpet player hit a wrong note. Sidney Bechet took his jazz seriously.

Another vital part of the jazz scene was the RKO Boston Theater where, between movies, the scrim would go up and there would magically appear the bands of Ellington, Basie, Woody Herman, and Tommy Dorsey. When I was 12 or so, I’d wait at the stage door to catch a glimpse of the fabled players. Once, when I was about to say something to Johnny Hodges, I froze, dumbstruck before my idol. (I was trying to learn alto saxophone.)

Before the jam sessions at the Savoy, I’d go on Sundays to largely Dixieland dates by the local Vinal Rhythm Kings, most of whom had day jobs but were joyously at ease in “High Society,” “Muskrat Ramble,” and other staples of that swaggering idiom. It’s become rather fashionable to dismiss Dixieland as decidedly unhip, a relic of the relatively primitive jazz past and too white besides. Years later, after I’d had a long interview with the perennially modern Lester Young, he said, “I’d like to ask you a question. Do you like Dixieland?”

“Sure,” I said. “If it’s good.”

“So do I,” said the hippest man in jazz.

The frequent presence in town of renowned jazz bands and soloists did not, however, eclipse my pleasure in resident improvisers. Sabby Lewis had a band at the Savoy with trumpeter Joe Gordon, who later worked with Charlie Parker and would have been a major jazz figure if he hadn’t died in a fire at age 35. Another young trumpet player, the lyrical Johnny Windhurst, had the stamina to work with Sidney Bechet in Boston and went on to be part of Eddie Condon’s far-flung enterprises.

One of the most illustrious alumni of the Boston jazz scene is cornetist Ruby Braff. When I was 14, I was practicing clarinet by an open window during a summer afternoon, on Howland Street in Roxbury, when a kid shouted from the street, “You want to make a session?” It was Braff, who was (and is) two years younger than I. I’d been taking classical clarinet lessons and could read music fluently, so I went, figuring I’d ace the charts. Ruby stood up, started to play, and I knew I’d never be a jazz professional. But I sure was in the presence of one.

By 1956, Louis Armstrong had nominated Ruby as a “New Star” on trumpet in a musicians’ poll for Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz. He has since performed in many countries and on scores of recordings. In March of this year, some 60 musicians paid tribute to Ruby on his 74th birthday in Clearwater Beach, Florida. Ruby remains as resolutely individualistic, on and off the stand, as the day he fired his first music teacher for incompetence. Ruby was eight years old at the time.

Starting when I was 19, I got to know many more jazz players through my music program at WMEX, where I was staff announcer and handled wrestling, the news, boxing, and The Jewish Hour with Joseph Tall. I also was James Michael Curley’s announcer during his campaigns. I doubt if Curley — four-time mayor, four-time congressman, governor, alderman, and city councilor — knew or cared much about jazz, but his voice was like an organ, with all the stops. And he resoundingly improvised, particularly as he assailed “the State Street Wrecking Crew” (i.e., the Yankee bankers).

At the station, I interviewed and came to know just about all the musicians in my ever-expanding record collection — Ellington, Parker, Red Allen, Ben Webster, Jimmy McPartland, Rex Stewart, Vic Dickenson, et al. And I broadcast remotes from the Savoy every week. It was a jazz fan’s fantasy come to life, a glorious time. Many of those broadcasts have been archived at the University of New Hampshire’s Library of Traditional Jazz, along with a repository of other information about the Boston jazz scene from its beginnings.

That scene took on additional life and no little luster when George Wein opened Storyville at the Hotel Buckminster in Kenmore Square in 1950. Week after week, Wein presented members of the pantheon — Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Lee Wiley, Ella Fitzgerald, along with Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, Erroll Garner, and Pee Wee Russell.

I announced the remotes from Storyville too. One night, off the air, Jo Jones — the longtime Basie drummer who the sidemen said “played like the wind” — moved off the stands with sticks and brushes and played on just about every surface in the room except the heads of the audience. He illuminated the art of swinging on the walls, the floor, the doors, and might have gone on to the ceiling if it hadn’t been time for the next set.

Pianist Billy Taylor brought a trio to Storyville with a formidable young bassist, Charles Mingus, who became the closest friend I’ve ever had, other than my wife.

As a reporter, through the years, I’ve gotten to know Supreme Court justices, political figures, scientists, novelists, poets, and homicide detectives. By and large, I’d rather spend time with jazz musicians. Accustomed to taking risks every night, they do not defer to outside authority. And being constant travelers, in various cities and countries, they are multicultural in ways that cannot be taught at universities. When I was a kid in Boston, jazz musicians seemed to me larger than life, and some of them still do.

Jo Jones, for example. He considered himself a mentor, moral as well as musical, to “the kiddies,” as he called younger musicians on the way up. I’d hear him at a back table at the Savoy saying to one of them: “You’re a musician. Don’t ever forget that. You can do what very few other people can do. You can reach people, but to move them, you have to be all open. You have to let everything in you out. And you have to be in condition to play what you hear inside you.”

And Jo told the kiddies, including me, stories that could have been out of a memorable novel, like the one musician Chip Stern later quoted in an article on Jo:

“When I was young, I saw a black woman in south Alabama out on roller skates all by herself on a rink where she didn’t have no business being. She was wonderful, and I was watching her when this white man turned to me and said, ‘Do you know who that is?’

“I didn’t,” Jo continued. “He said, ‘That’s Miss Bessie Smith.’ Can you imagine that? A white man in Alabama calling a black woman ‘Miss’? I couldn’t believe it.”

Bessie Smith on roller skates stayed with me. I never heard stories like that at the Boston Latin School. Nor did I know anyone with the sweeping generosity and openness of Thomas “Fats” Waller. When I was a child, listening to the radio under the covers late at night, I heard a remote from the Panther Room in Chicago. This was during the Great Depression, when my mother would walk for blocks on Blue Hill Avenue to save a few cents on food.

I could hear glasses clinking, and the announcer was describing the plush room and the plush patrons. Then he announced the jolly pianist and vocalist: “Fats Waller!” Coming to the microphone, Waller, before beginning to play, said to the nation: “I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight.” That made me a jazz fan right there.

When I was a cub reporter at the Northeastern News, Fats Waller came to town to play at a hotel. Gingerly, I called his room and asked for an interview. I doubt if he’d ever heard of Northeastern University, and why would he spend time with some teenaged amateur journalist? But he invited me to dinner, and over a resplendent meal, the likes of which I’d never had before, he spoke long and freely. I told him I had a recording of him playing Bach on the organ in a London church.

“Well,” he said, “I can’t do that here. What you heard tonight is what I do to feed my face. But who would come to hear me play Bach in the United States?”

I urgently said that I would.

Except for the jazz musicians I got to know growing up in Boston, I seldom saw adults so passionate about what they were doing. There was an alto saxophonist and composer, Gigi Gryce, who gigged around town and was constantly surprised at what he was finding out about himself in his music. Later, in New York, he worked for a time with the utterly uncategorizable Thelonious Monk.

When I was in Monk’s apartment one afternoon, Gigi burst in and announced, “I’ve just gotten into Juilliard.” Monk, after a characteristic lengthy silence, responded, “I hope you don’t lose it there.”

That passion for self-discovery — the “it” in Thelonious Monk’s warning — was evident in so many of the jazz musicians evolving in Boston in the years I covered that scene. The New England Jazz Alliance in East Boston, which is working to establish a New England Jazz Hall of Fame, has a very long list of just some of the musicians who have been part of jazz history in these parts.

There are more than 400 names on the list, among them some of the leading drummers in jazz — Jake Hanna, Joe Morello, Alan Dawson, Buzzy Drootin. On the front line, there is tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, who renewed Duke Ellington’s career by electrifying the crowd at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 by climaxing chorus after chorus between “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue.”

Among the pianists: Jaki Byard, who could play in any style without diminishing his own voice, and Dick Twardzik, a distinctive modernist; omitted is the volcanic Cecil Taylor, whom I later recorded as an A & R man. On alto saxophone is another Roxbury alumnus, Sonny Stitt, who developed his style, very much like Charlie Parker’s, before he’d ever heard Parker. I caught Sonny one night in a club where people came mainly to eat and talk to each other, but when he went into the blues, the room fell silent. Even the waiters stood still.

With all the proliferating jazz record reissues, there ought to be a Boston jazz series — from Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, to Roy Haynes, Herb Pomeroy, Ruby Braff, and the players continuing the heritage in the clubs right now.

More ambitious was a proposal by Brent Banulis, president of the New England Jazz Alliance, for a performance center, Boston jazz museum, and grand dance room on the East Boston waterfront, near Logan Airport and waterfront entities such as the New England Aquarium and the Children’s Museum.

Banulis was right to include the dance room. I remember nights at the Roseland State, and the Totem Pole, outside Boston, when the music and the dancers fused. Duke Ellington once told me, “When we’re playing at a dance and I hear a sigh from a dancer, that sigh becomes part of our music.”

Swing nights and swing dancing in Boston and other cities are attracting young dancers who also become listeners — as their elders did with Ellington, Basie, Goodman, and Artie Shaw. Not necessarily to Shaw’s “Nightmare,” but certainly to his “Begin the Beguine.”

In addition, a university — maybe my alma mater, Northeastern, now that it has an annual John Coltrane Memorial Concert and a jazz department — could implement an oral history project of jazz in Boston. Ruby Braff, Herb Pomeroy, and such alumni of the Berklee College of Music as Toshiko Akiyoshi and Israeli tenor saxophonist Anat Cohen are available, as are historians of the jazz scene.

If I were asked to be part of those tapings, I would begin with a cold winter afternoon. I am 16, passing the Savoy, and, as I wrote in my book Jazz Is, “a slow blues curls out into the sunlight and pulls me indoors. Count Basie, hat on, with a half smile, is floating the beat with Jo Jones’s brushes whispering behind him. Out on the floor, sitting on a chair, which is leaning back against a table, Coleman Hawkins fills the room with big, deep bursting sounds, conjugating the blues with the rhapsodic sweep and fervor he so loves in the opera singers whose recordings he plays by the hour at home.

“The blues goes on and on as the players turn it round and round and inside out and back again, showing more of its faces than I had ever thought existed. I stand, just inside the door, careful not to move and break the priceless sound. In a way, I am still standing there.”

It’s now 25 years since that passage was first published and nearly 60 since I was pulled into that room. I have never left.