Blues for Bobby Ward

The illustrious Boston school of jazz drumming that flourished from about 1940 to 1990 stretches from Bobby Donaldson to Terri Lyne Carrington. It counts among its alumni Roy Haynes, Alan Dawson, Jake Hanna, Clifford Jarvis, and Tony Williams. Bobby Ward, another one of these home-grown drummers, is less known, and undeservedly so. Ward, who died October 20, 2020, at age 81, remains unknown to many, even in his hometown.

Photo of Bobby Ward and Henry Cook

Bobby Ward and Henry Cook. Photo by Jefferson Page, from Accurate AC-5036.

The musicians knew Bobby Ward, though. They knew of Ward’s prowess far from Boston, and spoke of him with the highest respect. In fact, somewhere along the way, he became “the legendary Bobby Ward.” I always question that overused “legendary” label. I know he was an outstanding drummer. But Jo Jones is legendary. Is the little-known Bobby Ward?

Pianist John Kordalewski, leader of the Makanda Project, knew Ward and played with him. He thinks Ward’s unique approach explains the label. “It’s because of how he played,” Kordalewski told me. “There was nobody like him, he was a total original. There were always multiple things happening at once in his playing. The energy was just phenomenal. I’ve played with a lot of good drummers, but there are things that Bobby did that were on another planet.”


Studio Red Top: Credit Where It’s Due

In 1978, when Cathy Lee founded Studio Red Top, the jazz world reflected one unfortunate aspect of the society around it: it was run like an old boys club. Gender-based discrimination was rampant. It’s depressing to think about, and impossible to calculate how much good music we missed because of it. It is far more interesting to recount what Studio Red Top was doing about it at the local level.

Studio Red Top logoCathy Lee founded Studio Red Top to showcase the work of women musicians playing jazz, and expand the opportunities available to them. To do that, she ended up filling the roles of both concert producer and director of a non-profit corporation.

Studio Red Top starts out as one of those improbable lives-in-the-arts stories. It was still possible in the late 1970s to find loft space in Boston’s aging industrial buildings at a reasonable rent. One group, the Friends of Great Black Music, were doing concerts at their loft near South Station. Lee had something like that in mind. A friend told her about a building at 76 Batterymarch Street with vacant space on the fifth floor, and in June 1978, she rented it. It was a walk-up with no air conditioning, but it included an upright piano, abandoned by some long-departed tenant. Down on the second floor was a punk music club called The Space, dishing out eardrum-shattering music nightly. Around the corner was Saints, a womens’ bar where Lee’s friends in the jazz group Bougainvillea played. It was here that Lee founded Studio Red Top.


An Incomplete Guide to Boston’s Hi-Hat, 1949-1955

In the early 1950s, the Hi-Hat, on the corner of Columbus and Mass Ave in the South End, was the focal point of both name-band Black music and modern jazz in Boston. (There’s more here and here.) The club presented all kinds of music besides Diz and Bird, including mainstream swing, doo-wop, R&B, Latin, and pop. I devoted a chapter to the Hi-Hat in The Boston Jazz Chronicles and won’t repeat that history here. My purpose now is to present the schedule for its important years, from 1949 to 1955, when owner Julie Rhodes was booking the very best in modern jazz.

By way of example, the Hi-Hat was the first club in town to present Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, and Sarah Vaughan. But it was more to Boston than a name-band room. Dozens of Boston musicians worked there, including Dean Earl, Rollins Griffith, Bernie Griggs, Clarence Jackson, Sabby Lewis, Charlie Mariano, Nat Pierce, Fat Man Robinson, Hillary Rose, Jimmy Tyler, Al Vega, and many more. Symphony Sid set up shop here and broadcast live nightly over WCOP from “the Jazz Corner of Boston.”

Photo of Tubman House mural

One of the Tubman House murals at the site of the Hi-Hat. Photo by author.

The Hi-Hat shed its past as a whites-only dine-and-dance place in the summer of 1948, when it opened its doors to all and booked its first jazz trio. That was pianist Nat Pierce’s trio—he lived two doors down from the club on Mass Ave—and it usually included drummer Joe MacDonald and a horn player. The Sabby Lewis Orchestra, Boston’s most popular band, opened in September and played through the fall and early winter. Then we start the schedule shown here.

Music rocked the Hi-Hat non-stop until a fire closed the club in December 1955. As best I can tell, it remained closed in 1956. In January 1957, the Hi-Hat resumed an on-again, off-again music policy using local musicians. That continued until early 1959, when new owners again began booking name bands. It all ended when the fire of March 10, 1959 closed the club for good.


Boston Jazz Chronicles, Thanksgiving Edition

In the 1960s, Boston nightclubs still booked artists for a full seven-day week plus a Sunday matinee—the infamous Boston eight-day week. Musicians worked Monday to Sunday, and the Boston papers ran their big club pages with all the ads on Mondays. Seven days meant seven days, holidays included if the club planned to be open. Thus the artists booked for Thanksgiving week played on Thanksgiving night. I’m sure some of them wished they were home instead (Dave Frishberg’s “Sweet Kentucky Ham” comes to mind).

I’m thinking about Boston jazz in the 1960s a lot these days, and I started wondering where a jazz listener back then might have spent a Thanksgiving night. Here’s a list of some likely spots.

Howard McGhee Trio at Lennie’s, 1963

The nation was in shock on Thanksgiving Day in 1963. President Kennedy had been assassinated six days before. Kennedy died on a Friday and many rooms closed through the day of the funeral, but on the fifth day most were open, even if the audiences were small and the mood somber.


The First Boston Globe Jazz Festival, 1966

George Wein didn’t say it in 1966, the year of the first Boston Globe Jazz Festival, but he did a few years later. “This is my hometown,” he said, “and regardless of how well one does elsewhere, there is a special need to succeed in the area where a person was born and raised.” George acquitted himself admirably that year.

Photo of George Wein at Newport

George Wein at Newport, late 1960s

Although Wein was running festivals all over the country by then, he hadn’t staged one in Boston since 1960. He wanted another shot at it. In 1965, Wein and his publicist Harry Paul visited the Globe to continue discussions begun at Newport that summer.

The Globe, for its part, wasn’t much beyond dipping its toe into the water when it came to popular culture. It had a long history with the fine arts, but jazz? Not so much. Like the man said, though, the times were a-changin’ in the mid-1960s, and Boston’s institutions were starting to pay attention. Tom Winship, the paper’s new editor, gave the festival his full support. So long story short, the Boston Globe Jazz Festival was a go for January 14-15, 1966.


Dick Wetmore & Company at Danny’s Cafe

One of the few bright spots on the Boston scene in 1960 was Daniel Colucci’s club at 12 Haviland Street, a block off Mass Ave, named Danny’s Cafe. Danny’s was a small place with a bandstand behind the bar on one side, a row of booths on the other, a pay phone near the door, and not much else. Actually, it did have something else—for a few years starting in the late 1950s, it had a house band of mostly unsung local jazzmen. Only one of them, Dick Wetmore, is a name recognized by fans some sixty years later. Time flies…

Photo of Dick Wetmore 1955

Dick Wetmore, 1955. Photo by Jack Bradley.

Danny’s didn’t buy much advertising, so it isn’t clear when the music got started. However, Herb Pomeroy and others remembered pianist Danny Kent in sessions at Danny’s in the late 1950s. It was always a quartet, with two horns, piano and drums. There was no bass player, but bassists always seemed to be sitting in. Actually, club patrons remembered a lot of sitting in at Danny’s.

I haven’t learned much about Danny Kent. He’d been in Boston since 1949, probably studying at Schillinger House. He played in the house band at the Mardi Gras, a Washington Street club, in 1950-51. Then he was at the Melody Lounge in Lynn, the unlikely hotbed of modernism in early 1950s. Next, Kent was part of Jay Migliori’s band at the Downbeat Club and Storyville. He was a writer and arranger, contributing to the Pomeroy band’s book. His “Blue Grass” kicks off the band’s Life Is a Many Splendored Gig album. Kent left Boston to go with Red Rodney in 1959; he’s on the album Red Rodney Returns, and wrote three of the tunes. He worked with saxophonist Billy Root in Philadelphia in 1961. Then he vanished. Nobody knows what happened to him, but rumor has it he died young. Meanwhile, Harry Ferullo assumed the piano chair at Danny’s. And I know even less about him.


Streaming a Salute to Newport on WETF

Photo of Philco AM radioBrent Banulis, a good friend of Boston jazz, hosts a one-hour radio show called Collectors Choice: Jazz from New England on radio station WETF, streaming worldwide. Even a jazz lover like Brent deserves a day off, so I occasionally substitute for him. I’ll be on the air on Wednesday July 28 from noon to 1:00 p.m., repeating at 11:00 p.m, and repeating again on Saturday July 31 at 9:00 a.m. The show theme is “A Salute to Newport,” with all the music recorded at the festival. We’re honoring the real thing happening this weekend.

Then we do it all again with part two of the Salute to Newport the following week. I’ll be on the air on Wednesday August 4 at noon, repeating at 11:00 p.m, and repeating again on Saturday August 7 at 9:00 a.m.

There will be plenty of good music, for the most part staying away from the chestnuts of the festival’s early years. Do listen in if you can’t make it to Fort Adams State Park! The station streams jazz all day, every day. They don’t call it WETF: The Jazz Station for nothin’.

The Rum-Saturated Silver Dollar Bar: A History

There’s that old cliché about how it would be if walls could talk. If they could, the walls at 642 Washington Street would keep us awake well past bedtime. That was the home of the World Famous Silver Dollar Bar. It opened in 1936, its final successor closed in 1983, and the intervening years were a wild, wild ride.

Photo of Silver Dollar Bar

The World Famous Silver Dollar Bar, prob. early 1950s

Jazz and R&B were prominent at the Silver Dollar for 25 years, but later so were rock and whatever recorded music the strippers fancied. It’s a story of one club and the city’s changing nightlife scene over a decades-long span.

The Silver Dollar Bar was a big place. It advertised having the world’s longest bar—an absurd claim. But it was long; photos give the impression the barroom extended all the way to the waterfront. That opened into the Blue Terrace Room, with the bandstand and dance floor. The kitchen served modestly priced dinners. Owner Harry Sher proudly called the Silver Dollar “the poor man’s Stork Club.”

Shows at the Silver Dollar Bar in the pre-war years had a distinct vaudeville flavor, with as many as ten acts on the bill. A September 1938 show is typical. It featured a female impersonator, an accordion soloist, a tap dancer, a violinist, a pianist, two singers, and a mysterious “versatile performer.” The headliner, an acrobat and “one of the world’s strongest women,” bench-pressed 300 pounds as part of her act. Sher employed two house pianists—one black, one white, both women. The black one, Frankie Osborne, played good boogie-woogie.


The Brief Life of Varty’s Jazz Room

Photo of Varty Haroutunian playing saxophone

Varty Haroutunian at the Stable, 1959

In early 1966, Varty Haroutunian, manager of the Jazz Workshop on Boylston Street, saw the writing on the wall. It said, “grow or close.” The Workshop seated 175, and Haroutunian believed that given the changing economics of the music business, the club couldn’t make it without more revenue. For that, he needed more seats, and his pursuit of them led to the opening of Varty’s Jazz Room.

Varty Haroutunian is a familiar figure in these blog posts (here and here), and an important character in The Boston Jazz Chronicles. He was the Jazz Workshop’s booker as well as its first manager, and for three years the music was consistently of high quality. There were many high points, from the Grand Opening with Stan Getz, to booking artists who otherwise went unheard in Boston (Shirley Horn, Bobby Timmons, Lennie Tristano), to multiple visits by John Coltrane’s Quartet. And Varty filled out his schedule with the best of the local jazzmen—Pomeroy, Mariano, Mosher, Lennie Johnson.

A rent increase in early 1966 brought the revenue issue into sharper focus. Then in June clubowner Harold Buchhalter sold the Jazz Workshop to Tony Mauriello, Fred Taylor, and Peter Lane—MTL, Inc. They were already managing Paul’s Mall, another Buchhalter property next door, and Buchhalter sold MTL both clubs. However, the understanding was that Haroutunian could manage the Workshop as long as he wanted the job.


Theatre District Nightlife Walk Set for June 5

Latin Quarter Photo CoverThe warmer weather is here and people are venturing outside again. That means it’s time to start my entertainment district walking tours for 2021. First up is “Boston Nightlife at Mid-Century,” a stroll through the Theatre District and Bay Village—by day—on Saturday, June 5.

The 90-minute Theatre District nightlife walk is sponsored  by Lexington Community Education, and preregistration is required. The cost is $25 per person. For complete info, or to register, go to the Lexington Community Education website.

What: Walking tour, “Boston Nightlife at Mid-Century.”

When: Saturday, June 5, 2021 (rain date Saturday, June 12) 10:00-11:30 a.m.

Where: Meet on the Boston Common, at the corner of Boylston and Tremont streets.

Accessibility: Route follows city sidewalks.

Among the notable people whose paths we’ll cross are James Brown, George Carlin, Miles Davis, Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington, Christine Jorgensen, and Diana Ross. We’ll also meet two generations of Boston entertainers and a couple gangsters who prefer not to be identified at this time. Hope to see you there.