Connolly’s Stardust Room, on the corner of Tremont and Whittier in Roxbury, served as a destination for two generations of Boston clubgoers. The first attended from 1957 through 1967, including the club’s name-band years. The second witnessed the 1990s and last call.
Connolly’s history starts in 1955, when Jimmy Connolly bought a five-story building at 1184 Tremont Street housing a neighborhood bar called Murray’s Cafe. Jimmy brought in music in 1956, and Connolly’s Stardust Room, with a capacity of about 150, was born. Vin Haynes wrote in the Boston Chronicle that he was hearing good jazz there on the weekends in January 1957. But the building was so dilapidated that Boston’s building inspectors told Connolly that if he didn’t remove its upper floors, they’d condemn it. He did, and the result was the squat single-story building we remember.
In early 1959, Connolly brought in an organ trio and put them to work seven nights a week. Hillary Rose was the man at the Hammond B-3. Dan Turner, a hard blower nicknamed “Hurricane” during his days with Sabby Lewis, played tenor. Bill “Baggy” Grant, who learned his drumming alongside Kenny Clarke, completed the trio. It was the group to hear in Boston.
Enter Jimmy Tyler
In December 1959, Turner left Boston. His replacement was another Sabby Lewis alumna, the fiery tenor and alto saxophonist Jimmy Tyler. If ever a man walked into the right place at the right time, Jimmy Tyler was that man. Tyler’s showmanship made him a crowd favorite at the Roxbury club. Within a matter of months Tyler became the music director at Connolly’s, because he had something else going for him besides his fiery play—he knew every mainstream musician on the east coast. And he brought them all to Connolly’s, one at a time, to play with his band.
Many on Tyler’s guest list were associated with Basie, Ellington, and Hampton, and all were reliable members of jazz’s mainstream. Consider just the trumpeters: Red Allen, Cat Anderson, Emmett Berry, Buck Clayton, Sweets Edison, Roy Eldridge, Lennie Johnson, Howard McGhee, Ray Nance, Joe Newman, Charlie Shavers, Clark Terry, and Cootie Williams—an impressive roster. Whenever the road bands were idle, Connolly’s brought their star soloists to Boston for a week’s work. At the time, it was the only Boston spot booking this caliber of musician consistently. But May 1962 marked the end of it.
I don’t know why Tyler’s reign at Connolly’s ended. After two-and-a-half years, maybe Connolly wanted to try something other than a steady diet of singles backed by the house band. Perhaps Tyler wanted something new. But when I look at the club’s guest artists, and I can’t help but wonder if Connolly wanted to add more contemporary sounds to the club’s mix. If that was the case, he got his wish.
Hard Bop and Name Bands: 1962-1967
Changes were apparent in the fall/winter of 1962-1963. In came a more modern sound. Eric Dolphy brought a quartet that included Herbie Hancock. The Toshiko Mariano Quartet worked their last gig before Tosh and Charlie, then married, moved to Japan. Jackie McLean worked a remarkable week with the teenage drummer Tony Williams. Sam Rivers and Hal Galper brought in a quartet. One local group made multiple appearances—the International Jazz Quartet, led by Berklee students saxophonist Sadao Watanabe and trumpeter Dusko Goykovich.
Also in early 1963 came the first of what would be a lengthy lineup of organ trios, that of Rhoda Scott. And soon would follow Trudy Pitts, Gene Ludwig, Shirley Scott, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, and others. The local Hammond specialists were at Connolly’s too—Fingers Pearson, Joe Bucci, and Phil Porter.
It’s not like Connolly’s abandoned the idea of singles playing with a local rhythm section. Sonny Stitt was a frequent visitor who always worked as a single. Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins worked as singles. Singers like Al Hibbler and Johnny Hartman used local trios. And only the best of the local cats got the call to play at Connolly’s. These included pianists Jimmy Neil, Ray Santisi, and Paul Neves; bassists Billy Hill, John Neves, and the club’s first-call bassist, Larry Richardson; and drummers Harold Layne, Alan Dawson, and Bobby Ward.
Jimmy Connolly was a white man operating a tavern in a black neighborhood. Except for Wally’s, that’s the way it was then. But that neighborhood crowd sustained the club, and Connolly’s music directors booked the artists they wanted to hear. The vast majority of the club’s bookings were black artists. (White artists worked more often, and white audiences were larger, at the Jazz Workshop on Boylston Street.) The audiences were racially mixed, but generally more black than white. People remember it as a congenial place.
The Quiet Years
The music abruptly stopped at the end of 1967. Whatever the reason, club listings and advertising stopped in January, and the newspapers reported the club closed in April 1968. This led to years of relative quiet. James Connolly Jr, who had taken over the club from his father, reopened and restarted a music policy—at least long enough to wind up on the musicians union’s defaulters list in 1974. So Connolly’s limped along, but the times were changing in Roxbury, and the city had big plans for Tremont Street.
In 1976, the Boston Redevelopment Agency (BRA) took the property by eminent domain, allowing the club itself to remain open. The BRA courted various developers and evaluated many proposals, but nothing concrete came of it. Connolly’s remained open, a lonely survivor in the last building standing on the once-thriving block.
Revival and Last Call
In 1991, Fred and Brenda Hamlett bought the business, renting the property from the BRA. They built upon the club’s community roots (“good jazz,” said one regular patron, “but also good conversation”) and presented a schedule of local groups. Among them were those of trumpeters Cecil Brooks and Billy Skinner, guitarist Fred Woodard, and Salim Washington’s Roxbury Blues Aesthetic. As in Connolly’s glory days, the clientele mixed neighborhood people and jazz fans. But always the specter of the BRA loomed over the club, and in an effort to preserve it, the Hamletts applied for landmark status with the city’s Landmarks Commission in 1994.
After years of push-and-pull, during which the Hamletts were unable to find a suitable site for relocation, the end came swiftly. The club was denied landmark status in early December 1997, and on December 15, the BRA gave notice that the club had 120 days to vacate. Connolly’s closed March 26. The Hamlett lease expired on April 15, they were evicted on the 16th, and the BRA demolished the building on the 17th. After 43 years of ups and downs, Connolly’s was literally down—knocked down. It was a sorry end, but certainly not the first time a place of neighborhood importance gave way to “progress.”
The Connolly’s site at Tremont and Whittier is still a vacant lot. I’ll have more to say about the last days of Connolly’s in a later post.