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.
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.
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.
Newton’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.
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.
Mae 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.
April 14, 1975 marked the opening of Sandy’s Jazz Revival, a new name for an establishment already over forty years old. What’s in a name? In this case, it signaled owner Sandy Berman’s renewed commitment to the classic jazz he loved. Sandy’s Jazz Revival, in suburban Beverly, remained a stalwart presence on the Boston jazz scene through 1983.
Sandy Berman in 1980. Photo by Nancy Shackleton for Essex County Newspapers
The Jazz Revival’s story began in 1932, when Samuel and Rose Berman opened the Spic ‘n Span Cafe on Rantoul St. They added a liquor license and a trio the next year to make it a dine-and-dance place. In 1939, the Bermans moved their operation to 54 Cabot Street, and by that time, they already had jazz on the menu. Sandy became club manager following his wartime army service. After his father’s death in 1954, he renamed the place Sandy’s Lounge, or Sandy’s Melody Lounge. (He started calling it the Melody Lounge after the well-known jazz club in nearby Lynn with that name closed.) Sandy brought in more jazz, and Rose came back to work, to serve as hostess for the next 25 years.
Sandy’s Lounge featured jazz into the early sixties, but by then college-age crowd was more interested in dancing than listening to jazz. Berman obligingly switched to recorded music to accommodate them. He might have called it Sandy’s Disco when that trend came along. I don’t know if Sandy went full discotheque, with go-go dancers and the like, but he continued to spin records through the 1960s. Then fashion changed again, and Berman went back to live music with the launch of Sandy’s Concert Club in 1970.
You can’t overstate drummer Alan Dawson’s importance in Boston. He was part of the bedrock on which the local jazz scene stands. Superb musician, influential teacher, exemplary mentor, master link in the Boston school of jazz drumming—Dawson was all these things. He was a near-constant presence from the late 1940s into the 1990s. He played with everybody, and we owe him much. It’s a great story, a Boston story.
Alan Dawson at the drums, late 1970s. Photo by Tyrone Hall.
George Alan Dawson was born in 1929 in Pennsylvania but his family moved to Boston when he was a boy. He grew up on Hammond Street in Roxbury. Always playing the drums, he got his first gig at age 14, with the band of Tasker Crosson, playing at the USO on Ruggles Street. Dawson recalled Crosson calling “Body and Soul,” although he had hoped to debut on a flag-waver. All through high school he played with older, established musicians, like Crosson, trumpeter Buster Daniels, and saxophonist Wilbur Pinckney. After graduation in 1947, Dawson began four years of instruction with Charles Alden, probably the best teacher in town at the time, who drilled him in fundamentals and taught him to read. Dawson began playing marimba in 1949 and later switched to vibes.
From his first days as a drummer, Dawson listened to Jo Jones. He liked Jones’s sound, his use of the cymbals, and his overall approach, which elevated the drums above “a crude banging type of instrument,” as he told Jazz Journal in 1971.
Five years ago, I posted “Boston Jazz Venues Come and Gone,” a look back at the dearly departed. Steve Provizer compiled the first version of that list, at the time when we learned Ryles Jazz Club was closing. Then I compiled a list, and we combined them, and ended up with about 200 entries. You can still find that list over at his blog, Brilliant Corners.
Now five years on and with more info in the database, I’m taking another crack at it, but with a twist. While the 2018 list included everything, this 2023 iteration covers only the years 1960 to 1990—more or less the years of The Boston Jazz Chronicles Part 2. This list goes beyond clubs and concert halls to include alternative venues like churches and galleries. However, I omitted most parks, playgrounds, and public spaces that were used by events like Summerthing or Boston Jazz Week. Too much work!
If anyone out there decides to compile an A-to-Z (Acton Jazz Cafe to Zeitgeist) list of Boston jazz venues covering the next 30 years, I’ll be happy to post it.
This is the most current information I have, but it is by no means complete, and I’m sure there are errors, too. My research cutoff is August 1988, when the 1369 Jazz Club closed, so some of the dates after that are best guesses. “No warranty expressed or implied.” Please leave a comment if you have a site to add, or if you spot something that needs fixing.
West End/North Station
Boston Visual Artists Union, late 1970s
Old West Church, early 1970s
Scotch ‘n Sirloin, 1973-1984
Stone Soup Gallery, mid 1970s
Webster Lewis was a whirlwind on the Boston music scene in the 1970s. Fueled by seemingly inexhaustible energy, Lewis was all things at once: musician and bandleader, composer and arranger, teacher and administrator. He was a jazz man at heart, but his wide-angle view extended beyond jazz to incorporate all genres of Black music. It was all part of his musical conception.
Lewis, a Baltimore native, was already working as a pianist and organist while attending Morgan State College there. He played the popular Black music of the day in tenor saxophonist Harold Adams’s band—Harold Adams & the Soul Brothers. While still a student, in 1965, Lewis got his first taste of a recording studio, on sessions at Scepter Records in New York. He impressed Scepter’s resident producer-genius, Luther Dixon, who encouraged his growing interest in composing and arranging. For Lewis, the experience was revelatory.
The Adams band went on the road in 1966, touring as Judd & the Soulfuls, with Lewis on the Hammond B-3, and Judd Watkins, a powerful baritone singer, out front. Their Boston stop was at Estelle’s, on Tremont Street. Lewis probably liked what he saw, because after a year back in Baltimore, he enrolled at the New England Conservatory. He probably arrived in fall 1968. He studied piano with Jaki Byard, and composing and conducting with Gunther Schuller. George Russell joined the faculty in 1969, and became Lewis’s mentor.
Writer Ernie Santosuosso once noted that Lewis attacked projects with the aggressiveness of a bulldozer. So it was with his studies. He pursued two advanced degrees simultaneously—in Music Composition at the Conservatory, and in Social Psychology at Boston College. (He completed both in 1970.) That left him with too much spare time, so he formed a quintet in early 1969. Watkins had also moved to Boston, and the two continued to play with various combinations of drummers and horns well into the 1970s. With the quintet’s mix of jazz and R&B, they were favorites at Estelle’s, and at a new club in Cambridge, the Western Front, that opened in 1970.
Duke Ellington once said that when Johnny Hodges played a solo, he could hear the listeners’ sighs. I can relate. That’s the way I felt when Carol Sloane sang a ballad. Her intensity, her reading of the lyric, the intimacy of her performance—I’d listen, and I’d sigh. I doubt I was the only one, because Sloane was long a favorite among connoisseurs of fine jazz singing. Why she wasn’t better known will always be a mystery to me.
Carol Sloane, from Show Business Illustrated magazine, March 1962
Carol Sloane (nee Carol Morvan) was born in Providence, RI, on March 5, 1937, and raised in nearby Smithfield. She moved to New York in 1958 and split the next 28 years between that city and Raleigh, NC. She moved to Stoneham, in suburban Boston, in 1986, and resided there until her death on Jan 23, 2023.
Sloane started her professional career in 1951, at age 14, singing with Ed Drew’s dance band around Providence for nine dollars a night. She wasn’t Carol Sloane yet, though. She sang as Carol Vann, and even recorded a pop tune in that name in 1953, the obscure “So Long,” on Cadillac Records. But jazz was always on her mind. She learned by listening to late-night radio, to Jazzbo Collins on WNEW in New York, and Norm Nathan on Boston’s WHDH. The next day she’d take her nine dollars to the record shop. Providence deejay Carl Henry, behind the counter, got to know the teenager, and when she’d walk through the door, he’d be ready for her: “Have you listened to Art Tatum? Have you listened to Ben Webster?” She’d buy the records, learn the tunes, scat the horn solos.
Singing with Larry Elgart
In 1958, Sloane caught on with a name band, the orchestra of Larry Elgart. That’s when she moved to New York, working by day as a legal secretary. (She also found shorthand useful for capturing song lyrics.) Her daily walk to work took her past the showroom of W. & J. Sloane Furniture. She and Elgart thought it sounded right, and that’s how Carol Vann became Carol Sloane.
The local folk music community holds dear the memory of the coffeehouse located at 47 Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge, between 1958 and 1963. Everybody played there, and it was the subject of a well-regarded documentary film in 2012. They were good days, to be sure. The oft-told tale of folk music at 47 Mount Auburn, aka Club 47, sometimes includes an admission that “oh, by the way, it started as a jazz club.” Sometimes it doesn’t. Let us review.
Sam Rivers, mid-1960s. Photo by Lee Tanner.
On January 6, 1958, Paula Kelley and Joyce Kalina, two recent Brandeis graduates, opened a coffeehouse at 47 Mount Auburn St. They promised music: the trio of pianist Steve Kuhn on weekends, and guitarist Rudi Vanelli on weeknights.
As Kelley told the Harvard Crimson, the pair opened the coffeehouse, which they called Mount Auburn 47, because “things were pretty dull” in Cambridge. Getting it all together wasn’t easy. “Our friends told us we were complete fools to try. It was difficult at first to convince solid, middle-class Americans that a new artistic endeavor could also be a financial success, but finally we got the backing we needed.” They rented a storefront and learned how to brew coffee from an Italian who’d lived in the mideast. He was identified only as “a poet, artist, and recluse.”
Kelley and Kalina’s musical direction pointed toward jazz. Said Kelley, “It is very popular with students, and we want to provide a place where they can hear good experimental jazz.” We might not think of Kuhn as “experimental,” but he was suitably modern, and he drew an appreciative crowd.
It won’t be anything like the Christmas music you hear at the shopping mall! This Wednesday the 21st, I’ll be back on WETF, the station that streams jazz 24 hours a day, every day, to host another hour of Collectors Choice: Jazz from New England. It’s an all-Aardvark Jazz Orchestra Christmas show! We’ll hear familiar melodies, Mark Harvey originals, big-band arrangements of centuries-old carols, and a few tunes sung by Aardvark’s special guest, Sheila Jordan, to top it all off.
If you couldn’t attend Aardvark’s annual Christmas concert at earlier this month, do drop in for this one. Catch this holiday edition of Collectors Choice on Wednesday, Dec 21 at 12:00 noon EST. The show repeats on Saturday Dec 24 at 9:00 a.m. Hope you can listen in on jazzradiowetf.org.