Most of top jazz clubs have long since faded away, but not from our memories. In Boston, there was the Hi Hat at Massachusetts and Columbus Avenues where Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Roy Eldridge frequently appeared and Symphony Sid did his nightly broadcasts over WCOP. Nearby was The Savoy which featured more traditional jazz as did Storyville in the basement of the Buckminster Hotel in Kenmore . It was run by former BU student and jazz impresario, George Wein, who later founded the Newport Jazz Festival. The clubs provided work for many future stars such as George Benson who appeared at Estelle’s on Tremont St. I can remember going to Paul’s Mall on Boylston Street and seeing Bette Midler with a young accompanist named Barry Manilow.
One of the last great jazz clubs in the area was Lennie’s on the Turnpike, on Route 1 in Peabody. Somehow, Lennie Sogoloff and his top assistant, Joe Batista, found enough room in the small club to present the big bands of Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, Count Basie and Woody Herman and many famous solo artists. I never forgot the night Buddy Rich’s 15-member band was there with his daughter as vocalist. Then In his late 60s, and having survived quadruple-bypass heart surgery, he could boot the band the same as ever. He used Ludwig drums and, unfortunately for him, Mr. Ludwig was in the audience. Rich asked Mr. Ludwig to stand up and take a bow. Famous for his verbally-abusive behavior and twisted sense of humor ( I once saw him fire a sideman right off the bandstand), Rich saluted Ludwig with “Heil Hitler.” Lennie was recently honored by Salem State for (?) and had Amanda Carr perform at ( Amanda: can you clarify the gig Lennie arranged for you).
New York City, Chicago and, of course, New Orleans, were also meccas for jazz and big band fans. I grew up outside New York City when the jazz scene and big band venues were thriving. A trip to clubs on 52nd St., Birdland, or Nick’s was a trip to jazz heaven. Big band fans could hear Benny Goodman at the Paramount Theater (plus a feature film), Harry James at the Astor Roof, Guy Lombardo at the Roosevelt Hotel, or Tommy Dorsey at the Cafe Rouge in the Hotel Statler. “When I came to New York in 1945, it was filled with night life,” club entertainer Bobby Short once reminisced with Elijah Wald of The Boston Globe. “There were all kinds of clubs. Some were tiny rooms where one person like Mabel Mercer could sing to 60 people. All that’s gone now.”
My involvement with the jazz scene became more than just a fan. As a sideline since college, I became a personal manager/booker for a number of jazz artists who appeared in some of the best clubs and on radio and television thanks to the assistance of agencies like MCA and Joe Glaser’s Associated Booking Corp. One of the groups I booked into Lennie’s was the Saints & Sinners, co-led by Red Richards, piano, and Vic Dickenson, trombone. Herman Autry was on trumpet and Rudi Powell, clarinet/alto sax. Both had played and recorded with Fats Waller. They told me Fats would record in a loft in Brooklyn and have RCA send over a case of gin (hope they took some home!).
In January 1965, a British agent, Jimmy Jones, stayed at our house in Melrose while he arranged for a band I managed – featuring Wild Bill Davison and some all-stars – to tour England. The British union required that a British group tour the U.S. in exchange. When I asked Jones the name of the British group, it didn’t ring a bell … some group called The Rolling Stones.
Besides television (when Milton Berle was on Tuesday night the clubs were almost deserted), the arrival of rock and roll hastened the demise of the jazz/big band scene. I first “got the message” in the 1960s when I booked a traditional jazz band into a club in Chester, Pa. The manager said they would alternate with a rock and roll band which would begin the second set. After they had finished their earsplitting electronic barrage, it was sadly apparent that they had captured the young audience gyrating on the dance floor. Sound and fury had won. Artie Shaw, then 90, who was appearing in Boston with the band led by Dick Johnson, once told The Boston Globe, “People send me tapes and records to listen to, and frankly, I’m appalled by what I hear. As far as rap music – please! That has nothing to do with music.”
Shaw would no doubt agree with fellow clarinetist, Reginald Kell, one of the world’s most accomplished classical clarinetists, who once described his approach to playing: “I do not play the clarinet. I play music on it. I use it to express my personal feelings. An instrument is just a heap of dimensions with no life or intelligence. How different this can become in the hands of someone who has mastered the technical difficulties and uses it as a means to transfer both the composer’s and his own thought into sound. It is not longer lifeless and dull. It lives and reflects the message of the music no matter how sad or cheerful it may be. If you are going to play, then play with character.”
The legendary jazz guitarist, Marty Grosz, said it best, “Before forests of microphones had become requisite of every nightclub or concert hall, a sensible restraint governed jazz musicians … the idea that individual exuberance be governed for the good of the group. Today, owing to the miracle of amplification, instead of blending harmoniously, it’s every-man-for-himself ego tripping. Young musicians, thanks to rock and roll, equate loudness with masculinity. Noise swings.”
Seldom fully recognized in the rise of rock music was the impact of the “Payola Scandal” of the 50’s. For the sake of drugs and cash, disc jockeys started playing records by
performers and songwriters who did not belong to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). At the time, its competitor, Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI),
represented most of the rock and roll bands. Congress investigated the payoffs and 25 deejays and program directors were caught in the scandal. More recently in 2005, N.Y. State
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (you remember him !), prosecuted payola-related crimes and settled out-of-court with Sony BMG, Warner Music and Universal Music. They paid, $10, $5 and $12 million respectively for illegal “promotion payments.” As cabaret entertainer, Bobby Short, once commented, “I remember when disc jockeys used to say with great pride, ’Now we’re going to play a new Cole Porter song.’ You heard the words ’Cole Porter’ and your ears perked up.”
Of all the jazz concerts in history, the two I would love to have seen was Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert and Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars at Boston Symphony Hall, Nov. 30, 1947. My fellow jazz fan and D-Day veteran, Irving Smolens, was there for the Armstrong concert. Luckily for Armstrong, he had a front row seat.
As Irving describes it, “About 20 or 25 minutes into the concert a young woman raced down the aisle jumped up on the stage and started grabbing at Louis’ pants in the area of his private parts. Louis was perplexed to say the least. Because most of my live jazz listening was in small clubs (I preferred the intimacy) I wanted to be as close to the music as possible so I had a front row seat. I was determined that I would not be deterred by this interruption.
“I was twenty-three years old at the time and had fought Germans with the 4th Division in Western Europe so stopping the young woman was a minor challenge. I jumped up on the stage and grabbed her by one arm and began pulling her away from Armstrong. I was soon joined by an attendant who grabbed the woman’s other arm. Together we pulled her backstage where Velma Middleton had been standing waiting to go on. She thanked me and I returned to my seat and enjoyed the remainder of the concert. I learned later that the woman had just been released from what was probably a halfway establishment so she did have mental problems.
“After the concert, I wanted to hear more jazz so I walked down Massachusetts Ave. to the Savoy Club. While standing at the bar I met Armstrong’s clarinetist, Barney Bigard, who recognized me as having helped pull the woman off stage. I don’t remember who was playing that night. It might have been Edmund Hall and Ruby Braff with Crabfish Crawford on drums, or, it could have been Red Allen and J.C. Higginbotham, both groups had frequent and long term engagements at the club. For me, it’s always been a “nignt to remember.”
My saddest experience as a jazz and big band enthusiast was in July 1986. My wife and I had bought tickets for the Benny Goodman Orchestra appearance at the Hyannis Music Tent. Goodman had reformed his band and had been rehearsing the young musicians for weeks. Unfortunately, he died days before the event. Bill Carmen, the Music Tent owner, told me that Goodman had specified in his will that there would be no “ghost band” after his death. Carmen had pleaded with the estate lawyers to let the band play one more time and they agreed. The band, led by young Ken Peplowski, was outstanding, but your eyes could not miss Goodman’s clarinet that rested on a stool in front of the bandstand. How the young musicians got through Benny’s standard closing theme, “Goodbye,” I’ll never know.
Comments or questions are welcome.
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