Buddy Rich, Phil Wilson, and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”

In 1968, the Buddy Rich Big Band released Mercy, Mercy, an album recorded live at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. It had some success and made the Billboard album chart, due in large part to the title tune, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” And there is more than one Boston story tied up in it.

The Buddy Rich Big Band, and Mercy, Mercy album cover

Mercy, Mercy by Buddy Rich, 1968 (Pacific Jazz ST-20133). Love the psychedelia.

Let’s start with the composer. Joe Zawinul wrote “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” in 1966. He’s the first local connection. A native of Austria, Zawinul arrived in Boston in 1959 on a Berklee scholarship, but his stay was very brief. He had been in town for all of two weeks when Maynard Ferguson heard, and hired, him. About two years later Joe joined Cannonball Adderley’s group, and it remained his musical home for the rest of the decade. Although Cannonball recorded dozens of Zawinul’s tunes over the years, they never had another one like “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” It caught fire and climbed the charts, peaking in February 1967 at #2 on Billboard’s Soul chart and at #11 on that magazine’s Hot 100, the singles chart. Then “Mercy” won the Grammy award in 1967 for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance.

New versions of “Mercy” popped up everywhere in 1967; among the jazzers who recorded it were Count Basie, Willie Bobo, Art Farmer, Willie Mitchell, Howard Roberts, and Jimmy Smith. Gail Fisher wrote lyrics, and Marlena Shaw’s vocal version made it to #58 on the Hot Hundred. A Chicago rock band, the Buckinghams, singing different lyrics, made it all the way to #5.

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Cookin’ at the Boston Jazz Society’s Jazz Barbecue!

For many area jazz fans in the 1980s and 1990s, the Boston Jazz Society meant one thing: the Jazz Barbecue. It was the Society’s biggest and best-known event. The annual August blast started in the mid-1970s and continued into the early 2000s. If Boston jazz had a community-building event, this was it: all ages, multi-cultural, musicians of all abilities, just plain fans. Everybody I know who made a habit of attending remembers those afternoons warmly, if hazily.

Boston Jazz Society's "Jazz Is Alive" pin-back button

Boston Jazz Society pin-back button

The Boston Jazz Society was a non-profit organization that incorporated in spring 1973. Its officers and board of directors were all volunteers. Their purpose was two-fold. First, to assist young musicians by offering financial support, and second, to help working musicians by producing concerts. The concerts, in turn, would raise money for scholarships. Doing these things, they reasoned would help keep jazz alive in the public eye. They produced their first concert at Paul’s Mall in June 1973.

The BJS adopted that phrase, “keep jazz alive,” as their slogan. After a few years, though, they gave it a more positive slant: “Jazz Is Alive!” They put it on pin-back buttons, t-shirts, and the masthead of their newsletter.

There were more club concerts in the mid-seventies, and the Boston Jazz Society raised enough money to make its first scholarship award in 1975. And that year, saxophonist Sonny Carrington, the Society’s third president, thought of a way to bring the student musicians and the working musicians together in a casual setting.

Jazz Barbecues, Mid-1970s to Mid-1980s

A birthday party sparked the idea for the jazz barbecue. It took place in Sonny Carrington’s back yard, on August 4, 1975, the tenth birthday of his daughter, Terri Lyne. Of course, there were musicians playing. Picture it: nice summer day, friends, food and drink, live music… I can almost see the light bulb blinking above Carrington’s head as he imagined the possibilities.

Flyer for the 7th Annual Jazz Barbecue, 1982

Flyer, BJS 7th Annual Jazz Barbecue, 1982

At first the barbecue was not directly linked to the scholarship fund. It was a jazz appreciation day. “Join us in our efforts to show our appreciation to the musicians who have contributed their time and support in helping us “keep jazz alive,” said one early event invitation. Nor were the first barbecues public events. Numbered invitations were mailed and RSVPs requested. BJS members were of course invited, and many musicians, and sundry clubowners, advertisers, and members of the media. People mingled.

The first Jazz Barbecue took place in Carrington’s back yard in Medford. The next two were held in the Woburn backyard of Jimmy Hayes, one of the Society’s charter members. For the third one, in 1978, Hayes commandeered his neighbors’ backyards in order to accommodate the growing crowd. That year, 300 people attended.

The musicians ate chicken and burgers and played through the afternoon. It was a non-stop jam session. It was the year of the trumpeters in 1977, with five taking their turns: Ray Copeland, Greg Hopkins, Stanton Davis, Longineu Parsons, and Milt Ward. Saxophonists? Bill Pierce and Bill Thompson. Pianists? Sid Simmons and Frank Wilkins. Bassists? Tony Teixeira, Boots Maleson, and Jerome Harris. Drummers? Alan Dawson, Harold Layne, and Terri Lyne Carrington. This happened every year.

The first of the special guests arrived in 1977. Kenny Burrell, in town for a gig, came by with his guitar. He enjoyed himself, loved the vibe, and said he wanted to schedule something in Boston for the same time the next year. That didn’t quite work out, but an equally special guest, pianist Tommy Flanagan, dropped by in 1978.

The event was just too big for Hayes’s backyard, and in 1979, the BJS tried its first public space, Romuva Park in Brockton. They did not find a suitable site in 1980, and canceled the Jazz Barbecue altogether. They still didn’t have a good site in 1981, but rather than skip the event again, they found a bigger backyard, that of Society treasurer Sylvia Templeton. That year the BJS started a tradition of singling out a musician for special recognition by honoring the Boston jazz eminence, pianist Sabby Lewis.

Jazz Barbecue and Festival at Curry College

The search for an ideal site continued in 1982, at the Sons of Italy Park in Brockton. I haven’t identified the 1983 location yet. In 1984 the event moved to the Meadowbrook School in Weston. There was one more no-site cancellation in 1985, and finally, in 1986, the BJS found stability at Curry College in Milton. That location was home for eight years.

Flyer for the 10th Annual Jazz Barbecue, 1986

Flyer, BJS 10th Annual Jazz Barbecue, 1986

The Curry College site had a major selling point in that it could accommodate a bigger audience, although people still had to buy tickets in advance. A bigger audience might translate into more money for the scholarship fund, and later event flyers always made clear that proceeds benefitted that program. Even the name got bigger. It was now the Annual Jazz Barbecue and Festival.

The barbecue was still a day to honor the local jazz musicians, and a day for the students to play with them. And there was a moment of silence to remember those who died in the past year.

Something else happened in 1986, too: out-of-town artists appearing as headliners. As with their club concerts, local groups shared the stage and filled out the rhythm sections. So, for instance, in 1988, Art Farmer and Clifford Jordan shared the bill with Wanetta Jackson and Stan Strickland. In 1990, Jimmy Smith headlined, and so did the local Hammond B-3 organist, George “Fingers” Pearson. In 1993, Roy Haynes shared the bill with singer Eula Lawrence, who had first performed at a BJS event in 1973. But whoever it was, the afternoon still ended with a jam session.

In the 1990s at Stonehill College

After eight years at Curry College, the party moved to Stonehill College in North Easton for Barbecue #18 in 1994. More growth: it was no longer reservations only, there were gate sales, too. And bigger crowds meant that a catering company now replaced volunteers at the grills barbecuing the chickens.

During the Stonehill years, the best of the local jazz artists were prominent as headliners. Mili Bermejo (a 1982 scholarship recipient) topped the bill in 1996, the Woodwind Summit with Bill Pierce, Andy McGhee, and Donald Harrison (a 1981 scholarship recipient) in 1997, and Kendrick Oliver’s New Life Orchestra in 1999.

Flyer for the 20th annual Jazz Barbecue, 1996

Flyer, BJS 20th Annual Jazz Barbecue, 1996

Student ensembles, including scholarship awardees and honorable mentions had always been a feature of BJS events, including the barbecues. These Stonehill barbecues made a point of featuring them prominently in their own sets: Chiara Civello in 1996, Felipe Salles in 1998, Jaleel Shaw in 1999.

If the Boston Jazz Society has a lasting legacy, it is the scholarship program. They awarded about 35 scholarships over the years, including to such future luminaries as Branford Marsalis, Makoto Ozone, and Donny McCaslin.

The Jazz Barbecue remained at Stonehill through the silver anniversary year in 2001. Pianist John Hicks lead a quartet called the New York Powerhouse Ensemble. A student ensemble with scholarship winner Walter Smith III, was also on hand. (Alto saxophonist Smith is now the Chair of the Berklee Woodwinds Department.) Three members of the local community were honored for their long dedication to jazz: saxophonist Bill Thompson, drummer Harold Layne, and radio host Eric Jackson.

I can find no evidence of a Jazz Barbecue in 2002, or any time thereafter. The Society’s activity slowed down that year, perhaps because president Ed Henderson took time off for health reasons. Then in 2003, longtime vice-president Vin Haynes died.

The last scholarship, to the best of my knowledge, was awarded to Esperanza Spalding in 2005. There were plans for an August 2006 event at Scullers in place of the Jazz Barbecue, but it never came off. The Boston Jazz Society was winding down. It filed its last annual report with the Secretary of State’s office in 2012. Henderson finally turned out the lights in 2014. He donated all his files, photos, and memorabilia to the Archives at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2015.

A few years ago, Bill Pierce, who knows all about the Jazz Barbecue, told me this. “The Boston Jazz Society felt like a neighborhood—your aunt was in it. Your cousin was in it. It was almost folksy. And the picnic! That was so cool. It would be great if we could do that again, but there’s no organization that can pull people together like that now. Maybe the pendulum will swing back.”

One can always hope.

 

Serge Chaloff: The Capitol Sessions

The twin peaks of baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff’s recorded output were the two albums he made for Capitol Records, Boston Blow-Up! in 1955, and Blue Serge in 1956. There would certainly have been more great records to come had not Chaloff died of cancer in 1957 at age 33. Blue Serge might have been the better record, but I’ve always liked Boston Blow-Up! because of its strong local connections.

A Boston Blow-Up

In March 1955, baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff was back in action following a months-long hospital stay. “Serge, for years one of music’s more chaotic personalities, has made an about face of late and is again flying right. It is evident in his playing, which…has become a thing of real beauty.” So began Jack Tracy’s Down Beat review (Oct 5, 1955) of Boston Blow-Up!, Chaloff’s first album for Capitol Records.

Photo of Serge Chaloff in about 1950

Serge Chaloff, about 1950

“Chaotic”…others used harsher words to describe Chaloff. Serge was a heroin addict who managed to play splendid saxophone with Georgie Auld, Woody Herman, and his own groups in spite of it. By 1954, though, he’d burned too many bridges and had no room left to run. He voluntarily entered the rehab program at Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts.

Chaloff emerged from Bridgewater in early 1955. Disk jockey Bob “The Robin” Martin was one of the first to help him get reestablished. He negotiated a contract with Capitol Records for an album in their “Stan Kenton Presents” series. Then Chaloff assembled his band. His first call went to alto saxophonist Boots Mussulli, with whom he had recorded the Serge and Boots album for Storyville in March 1954. Chaloff still had his bad boy reputation, and the presence of the steady Mussulli, who had recorded his own “Kenton Presents” LP in 1954, reassured the producers at Capitol.

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Frankie Newton’s Boston Decade

The masterful trumpeter William Frank “Frankie” Newton (1906-1954) was well established in jazz circles long before he ever came to Boston. He’d worked with Cecil Scott, Charlie Johnson, and Teddy Hill. He was on Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot” session in 1933 (her last), and on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” session in 1939. Newton was one of the Port of Harlem Jazzmen, the first group to record on Blue Note Records. He was a founding member of John Kirby’s sextet, and a bandleader at Barney Josephson’s Cafe Society nightclub. Frankie Newton, in other words, got around. And when he got around to bringing a band to Boston, it was a sensation.

Head shot of Frankie Newton in 1946Newton’s residency at the Savoy Cafe, starting in January 1942, turned the local jazz scene on its ear. His professionalism set a standard for musicians on bandstands all over town, and his influence on young musicians was significant. One in particular, pianist George Wein, called Newton his musical mentor and never missed an opportunity to say so. And his band drew a crowd, at the Savoy, and the Vanity Fair and the Ken Club after that. It was an inspiring 18 months.

It was a fine band, too, with trombonist Vic Dickenson, Ike Quebec on tenor, and George Johnson on alto. Young Boston pianist Ernie Trotman anchored the rhythm section until he joined the navy. Nick Fenton on bass and Artie Herbert on drums rounded out the sextet.

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Mae Arnette: Boston’s First Lady of Song

When Mae Arnette was growing up in New York City, she dreamed of being a dancer, or maybe an opera singer. She’d have scoffed if someone had told her that one day, instead of singing Rigoletto at the Met, she’d sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Fenway Park in Boston. But that’s what happened, at a Yankees game no less, in September 1991. It was just one of the many venues where Arnette sang in her adopted city. She died in Boston July 30, 2023, at age 91.

Headshot photo of Mae ArnetteMae always wanted to be an entertainer, and with parental encouragement, she started early. At age six, she tap-danced in a Stars of Tomorrow talent show at Town Hall. At 12, she was tapping regularly as a member of a Harlem troupe, Mary Bruce’s Starbuds. Then somebody discovered she could sing, too, and at age 14 or 15 she sang professionally for the first time, at Murrain’s nightclub, uptown on Seventh Ave. At 16, she won an Amateur Night contest at the Apollo Theatre, singing Billy Eckstine’s “Prisoner of Love.”

Mae attended what was then called the Music & Art High School in Manhattan. She studied dance and classical music, and trained to be an opera singer—she was a big fan of tenor Lauritz Melchior. She sang with the renowned All City High School Chorus of New York at Carnegie Hall.

Mae Arnette was 20 when a phone call changed the direction of her life.

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