Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places and Nightlife 1937-1962

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"This is the book that many of us have been waiting for. Thank you, Richard Vacca, for giving us so much information on the rich history of jazz in Boston. The maps and pictures are wonderful additions to our knowledge of not only Boston jazz, but also the history of the city. I know that this is a book that I will turn to again and again."
—Eric Jackson of WCBH radio, Boston

"A tremendous piece of work, well written and researched. It's some of the best writing on the subject of regional jazz that I've read. The depth of the information Vacca has amassed on the Boston scene is incredible...a wonderful and valuable book."
— Robert Freedman, composer and GRAMMY-winning arranger

"The Boston Jazz Chronicles brought back memories of my years in Boston, at Storyville in Kenmore Square and Copley Square. Every Boston jazz fan must read this book. You won't put it down until every page is read."
— George Wein, legendary club owner and founder of the Newport Jazz Festival

“Engaging, expertly researched, and a great read. Brimming with lively profiles of people and places. Even the most knowledgeable jazz fan will find much that is new, surprising, and insightful. An important book for jazz, and for Boston.”
— Mark Harvey, composer and director of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra

"Boston was (and still is) a very special place for jazz, and this is a very special book, loaded with information, much of it new, all of it presented in a most engaging style, and seasoned with rare photos and replica. A veritable treasure-trove of jazz lore, and a great read!"
—Dan Morgenstern, author of Living with Jazz and Director Emeritus, Institute of Jazz Studies

As RICHARD VACCA, a Boston-based technical writer and editor, amateur historian, and regular presenter on the topic of Boston jazz and nightlife who spent seven years researching and assembling The Boston Jazz Chronicles explains:

“There's more to music in Boston than the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Jazz, for example, dates to the early 1900s, but it was in the 1940s and 1950s that it truly sparkled. The formative big-band and wartime years produced talents such as Ray Perry and Sabby Lewis. Postwar Boston became a destination for young veterans and big-band musicians seeking new direction. They joined with Boston's own formidable musicians to form a new, more modern scene, led by such luminaries as Jaki Byard, Joe Gordon, Nat Pierce, Charlie Mariano, Herb Pomeroy, and Sam Rivers.

The music was splendid, but there was more: Boston was home to influential jazz journalist Nat Hentoff; Berklee College of Music founder Lawrence Berk; and Storyville proprietor George Wein. And through it all was the music, at the Savoy Cafe, the Hi-Hat, the Stable, and other rooms both rowdy and refined.”

In his Preface, Richard describes how he came to write The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places and Nightlife 1937-1962:

“The Boston Jazz Chronicles started because I like to walk, and because I like history, and especially because I like jazz.

Back in 2004, my plan was to create a walking tour that would guide tourists and townies alike through Boston’s jazz history, one of the better stories about this city that most don't know. Boston has a rich jazz history, and I wanted to uncover it and bring it to life. I had no intention of joining the tedious debate about what jazz is and who is entitled to play it, and not being a musician myself, I wasn't going to try to interpret the ambitions and motivations of those who played the music 60 years ago. I saw my role as that of reporter, not critic, and my intent was to leave it to others to intuit deeper meanings.

The first task was to find places to walk to, and I soon learned that most of the places of Boston jazz are gone, demolished to make way for apartments, office buildings, expressway ramps, and parking lots. Some burned down. The few sites that remain house enterprises far removed from jazz music— storefronts, sandwich shops, private residences. A few are still nightclubs, but there hasn't been a lick of jazz heard within them in years. This was not a promising start.

It seemed a better option was to collect stories, find pictures, and assemble a book—an armchair walking tour. That's the first book I wrote, but that's not the book you hold in your hands. This book, though still organized primarily around places, is ordered chronologically. It sets those places in context better than the armchair walking tour did.”

The following excerpt from his Introduction further sets the tone for his work:

“The story of jazz is a story of cities. In the popular telling of that story, the first city is New Orleans, credited as the birthplace of jazz. It emerged from that city's rich musical stew, a bubbling mix of ragtime, minstrelsy, European concert music, spirituals, back-country blues, and brass bands. It was the birthplace of Louis Armstrong, the music's first superstar and the eminence from whom so much inspiration flowed.

Then jazz moved up the Mississippi River to its second city, Chicago, where it learned its big-city ways in the cabarets and speakeasies of the 1920s. It swept across the wide-open southwest and didn't stop until it got to Kansas City, the Paris of the Plains, where its bluesy, driving swing became synonymous with thirties jazz—and the sound of Count Basie's band.

It was New York, though, that became the jazz capital of the world and the place that attracted talented musicians from all the other cities. From the early days of syncopation in the 1910s, to the Harlem Stride piano men, to the musically advanced orchestras of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington in the 1920s, to the eruption of big band swing in the 1930s, New York was every bit the Big Apple. By the time the world went to war, there wasn't much room left for any other place in the popular story.

As fine as it was, though, New York had no monopoly on jazz. Perhaps New Orleans, Chicago, and Kansas City never reclaimed their prewar heights, but their musicians didn't stop making music. And what of other places? Jazz is a city sound, so what about Detroit, Philadelphia, St, Louis, or a dozen more? Musicians in those places weren't standing still, either. There were jazz scenes in all of them, smaller than New York's but vibrant nonetheless.

Let's add one more city to this list: Boston, Massachusetts. Boston not only had an active jazz scene, it had an important one, worthy of a prominent place on the jazz map. Of modest size before Pearl Harbor, the scene grew amidst the bustle of wartime activity in a busy port town. The late 1940s and 1950s were a time of tremendous energy and creativity both on stage and off. Boston was an incubator of musical talent, a training ground for jazz journalists, a magnet for music education, and a proving ground for new approaches in jazz presentation. Other cities made contributions as well, but Boston was unique in that it made major contributions to all of them. It wasn't only about playing notes. It was about building a scene.”

Copies of the book can be ordered directly from

Of particular interest to me was the section of the book devoted to the formation and development of the Herb Pomeroy Big Band, a Jazz orchestra that I had always enjoyed listening to on record. Herb’s Life is A Many Splendored Gig was released on Roulette Records in 1957 LP R-52001 and reissued on CD by Fresh Sounds records in 1989 FSR-CD 84 and became a constant source of inspiration during my fledgling years as a big band drummer.

Here are some excerpts about Herb’s fine big band from Mr. Vacca’s book from the section entitled -


“The energy and excitement at the Stable was not happening in a vacuum. Late 1955 was a lively time in Boston, and a glance at the newspapers from around Thanksgiving that year shows a jazz scene in high gear. Looking back on it, the level of activity is hard to believe, an embarrassment of jazz riches, the high-water mark of jazz in Boston not only in the fifties, but in all of our 25-year span. Across the street in the Copley Square Hotel, Storyville was on a piano kick that November, presenting Garner, Tatum, and Shearing, while in their cellar, Mahogany Hall featured Wild Bill Davison, Vic Dickenson and Jimmy McPartland. The Miles Davis Quintet, with its new tenor player, John Coltrane, had just closed at the 5 O'Clock two blocks away, Jay Migliori and Tommy Ball had the house band at the Downbeat on Park Square, where Mabel Simms played intermission piano. Downtown, the Sabby Lewis band, then including Alan Dawson and Lennie Johnson, was in the midst of a long engagement at Showtime on Warrenton Street, and Al Vegas trio was similarly employed at the 1-2-3 Lounge. Altoist Tom Kennedy was just starting his long run at the Brown Derby in the Fenway. On the Jazz Corner of Boston, Dean Earl had the group at Eddie's, saxophonist Dan Turner the group at Wally's, and Roy Hamilton was breaking the box office record at the Hi-Hat. Fingers Pearson was playing until dawn at the Pioneer Club.

Boston was jumping, and the Stable crew was about to make it jump even higher. Herb Pomeroy:

“I had a 12-piece band back in the early Fifties. Varty and I talked it over, about how we'd like to get a band like that started. We had seven musicians employed, and we were making enough money to do that. And Jaki, who was playing intermission piano, also played tenor. So if we could get Dick O'Donnell to give us a little more money, we could hire five more horn players to fill out the instrumentation we needed to play my band's book. We'd have a 12-piece band, and we'd work one night a week.

And in November of 1955, we did that. Well, the joint was mobbed, and the band sounded wonderful, and we did so well that Dick said, in March of 1956, let's go to two nights a week. So we had the big band in on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I still look back on this and shake my head. This band, which was doing very well, had started out as a trio in April 1954, and grew—first to a quartet, then a quintet, then a sextet, then adding an intermission pianist, then adding five more guys one night a week, then two nights a week.. .all in two years. We could not have planned it this way. It just happened.”

Pomeroy quickly expanded the band from 12 to 14, adding many who became longtime associates: saxophonists Byard, Dave Chapman, and Serge Chaloff (although health issues led to his early replacement by Deane Haskins); trombonists Joe Ciavardone and Bill Legan; and trumpeters Nick Capezuto, Lennie Johnson and Everett Longstreth. Another expansion, to 16 men, added trombonist Gene DiStasio and alto saxophonist Boots Mussulli. These horns joined the Stable Sextet of Gordon, Haroutunian, Neves, Pomeroy, Santisi, and Zitano. It was an impressive roster.

At this point, Herb Pomeroy becomes central to this story. Gloucester, Massachusetts-born Irving Herbert Pomeroy III was 11 in 1941 when his mother took him to a movie in which Louis Armstrong had a part, and that bit of celluloid inspired Pomeroy's career as a trumpet player. He was gigging at 14 with his own high school dance band and he discovered bebop in the mid-1940s. He began studies at Schillinger House in 1948, although his vague career plan was to be a dentist like his father, and he did spend a year at Harvard before quitting school to be a musician. He had worked at the jewel Room with Nick Jerret, and at Izzy Ort's, and at the Melody Lounge with Charlie Mariano and Jaki Byard. Pomeroy also had a musical day job, with the Jesse Smith Orchestra at the King Philip Ballroom in Wrentham:

That was not a jazz band, it was strictly a dance band. If there was any jazz, individual guys brought it. Ray and I were on that band. I was glad to have that job, we played every Friday and Saturday night, and in the summers on Wednesday night. I'd make about $21 a night, and I had a young family and that was good money. I stayed with Jesse until  went with Lionel Hampton in 1953.”  

Nineteen fifty-three was a watershed year for Pomeroy. He recorded two LPs with Mariano on Imperial Records, played a week with Charlie Parker at the Hi-Hat in June, and in December joined the Lionel Hampton Orchestra for about four months. He was involved with the Jazz Workshop in its early days, and after leaving Hampton, Pomeroy started playing at the Stable. He didn't stay long, however, going with Stan Kenton in fall 1954. By January he was back at the Jazz Workshop. That summer Pomeroy went on the road again, with Serge Chaloff 's Sextet. Tired of the road and with a family to support, he joined the faculty at Berklee in September 1955 (he stayed for 40 years), and started auditioning musicians for his big band. It made its public debut at a meeting of the Teenage Jazz Club in November 1955.

The Stable was swinging and invariably packed with enthusiastic listeners enjoying the sextet four nights per week and the big band on two more. The music expanded again when orthodontist-turned-trombonist Gene DiStasio stepped out of the big band to take over the Monday night chores. Business was good.

The 1956—1959 Herb Pomeroy Orchestra was a Boston phenomenon, as the earlier band of Sabby Lewis had been. Their home was at the Stable but there were numerous notable engagements away from it, including two weeks at Birdland in May 1957 and a week at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in December 1958. There were the festival appearances — the North Shore Festival in 1957, the Boston Jazz Festival at Fenway Park in 1959, and the annual performances at the Boston Arts Festival. The 1962 Arts Festival crowd numbered about 20,000, the largest crowd Pomeroy ever played, with or without the big band.

The Pomeroy Orchestra appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, and John McLellan enthusiastically wrote that "Boston can well be proud of the Saturday afternoon appearance of the Herb Pomeroy band. It was a big-time debut which completely flipped critics and musicians as well as the audience.. .The band was easily the surprise hit of the Festival! Their driving finale, "The Lunceford Touch," left the critics and musicians agog at the sound of one of the greatest brass sections anywhere."

"The Lunceford Touch" had its origins in the Living History of Jazz, an ambitious history of the music arranged primarily by Jaki Byard and narrated by John McLellan of WHDH. The Living History incorporated field hollers, blues riffs, African polyrhythms, touches of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, and Byard's prediction of how the music might sound in the future, "Jazz Suite, Opus 3." It also included "The Lunceford Touch," an original composition contributed by bassist George Duvivier, Jimmie Lunceford's last arranger. Duvivier had challenged Pomeroy, saying the Living History's first Lunceford piece didn't do the band justice, and he would write an arrangement to remedy that. Herb Pomeroy:

Duvivier and Jimmy Crawford, Lunceford s longtime drummer, were in Boston working at the Colonial Theatre in a Lena Home show. Now, the way we worked it was to rehearse between 7 and 8 and hit at 8:20, and we rehearsed "Lunceford Touch" and we might have even played it in the first set. But George and Jimmy came down after their show was over and sat in and we played it again, and the guys said they'd never been through anything like it.

The Pomeroy Orchestra also recorded. There were the LPs, Life Is a Many Splendored Gig recorded for Roulette in June 1957 (5 stars in Down Beat), included the most requested tune in the Pomeroy book, Jaki Byard's "Aluminum Baby." Band in Boston, recorded on United Artists in late 1958 (41/2 stars in Down Beat), showcased the writing and arranging of Bob Freedman, Neil Bridge and Arif Mardin. They also recorded The Band and I, with Irene Kral, for United Artists in 1958.

While all this was going on, the Pomeroy band enjoyed two advantages. First, it rehearsed regularly and worked twice a week, every week, at the Stable, without the distraction of living out of a suitcase. Second, the band's personnel remained stable in a business where change was the norm. Besides Pomeroy himself, nine of the original 16 members were still together in January 1959. The band had the opportunity to develop its book and its sound. That it chose to stay in Boston was ultimately part of its undoing: the road to greater recognition and success ran through New York, not Boston. …”

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.