Tenor saxophonist Rocky Boyd left little behind to remember him by. There is, thankfully, Ease It, the album he recorded in 1961, so we can still sample his sound sixty years later. It was his first and only album, recorded for the obscure Jazztime label. Ease It was a hard bop recording that would have been right at home on Blue Note, and given the personnel, I wonder how Blue Note missed it.
We can follow the Ease It story, but Boyd himself remains in the shadows. I can’t shed much light on him. The bare facts come from the capsule biography in the album’s liner notes. They tell us that John Erskine Boyd was born in Boston in 1936 and studied at the South End Music School, the Boston Conservatory and Berklee. He moved to New York in 1958, worked around town, and replaced Stanley Turrentine in the Max Roach Quintet. That summarized the life of Rocky Boyd to age 22.
Before that, though, he was active in Boston. Pianist Hal Galper was one who worked with Boyd before he moved. Galper organized his first band in 1957, his “pseudo Miles quintet,” modeled on sound of Davis’s group during the Prestige years. Rocky Boyd, already a Coltrane disciple, played tenor. (Others included trumpeter Wajid Lateef, bassist Benny Wilson, and Dick Banda on drums. A story for another time.)
Boyd also played in the “Drums and a Horn” concert in October 1957, at the New England Mutual Hall, in a group assembled by drummer Roy Haynes and trumpeter Joe Gordon. It was a powerhouse, also including tenor saxophonist Roland Alexander, pianist Paul Neves, and bassist John Neves. It was one of Boyd’s last gigs in Boston. Both Boyd and Alexander left for New York soon after.
Drummer Sunny Murray picks up the story there. He told All About Jazz, “The tenor saxophonist who sort of began my career was Rocky Boyd, and he was hot, very hot at that period…He helped me begin, and he was very encouraging of me in my studies, as we were living together downtown…I became professional with Rocky, around ’58.” In a September 2000 article in The Wire magazine, Murray further noted that Boyd was John Coltrane’s first student. I’ll leave that for the Coltrane scholars to verify.
Making Ease It
The Ease It recording session took place on March 13, 1961, with Boyd sharing front-line duties with trumpeter Kenny Dorham. Bassist Ron Carter joined them on the date. In an interview with Ethan Iverson, he talked about his work with Dorham: “We made a great record called Ease It with Rocky Boyd, a tenor player from Boston who left us a long time ago; Walter Bishop Jr., me, and Pete LaRoca. We’d done other things together, but this is kind of Rocky’s entrée to the jazz scene from Boston, playing like Trane, you know. It’s for a Canadian label, Fred Norsworthy was the producer’s name. It’s since got sold to a couple of different labels and got reissued under different label names, but it’s called Ease It. It’s a good record. Rocky Boyd played really well, came to New York, and (it) got too fast for him and it didn’t do him any favors.”
“It’s a good record.” Metronome magazine thought so too, and said so in its December 1961 review (its last issue, incidentally). It also put Boyd’s approach to the saxophone into the context of the times:
Add another young tenor player to the fast growing ranks of Coltranephiles. Boyd is definitely out of the Trane bag, and sounds so much like “middle period” Coltrane that it is genuinely disconcerting at times. But Boyd is at least one of the more astute and skillful of the Coltrane influenced tenor men. Boyd has a lot more to offer besides his blatant admiration for Trane. His ties to Coltrane, I think, are mostly in the sound he gets. That clear high bell-like resonance that John delights in so much. Boyd, however, is much closer to being his own man in what he does with this sound…Listen to Boyd’s solos on Why Not and parts of Ease It. He really manages to come into something fairly personal; also on his own tune Avars he stretches past mere Trane-isms to get into his own thing…This is a pleasant album with quite a few good solos, and it is also a good album for tenor-man Boyd to have under his belt.
After Ease It
Things looked promising for Rocky Boyd. His next opportunity came when he replaced Hank Mobley in the Miles Davis Quintet for three months in late 1961. After Davis, he went on the road with Philly Joe Jones in 1962. And then he vanished.
Galper heard he auditioned with Horace Silver but nothing came of it. I’ve read he struggled with mental illness and dropped out of music to preach the Bible, but that’s hearsay. Off the scene for years, he turned up in Boston in May 1967, working in Alan Dawson’s quartet at Connolly’s. Then he slipped from view again. Boyd next surfaced in October 1978, jamming with old friend Roy Haynes at a scholarship fundraiser sponsored by the Boston Jazz Society. Again the trail goes cold. Apparently Boyd was living in Boston, but probably not working as a musician.
Carter mentioned that Boyd “left us a long time ago,” but much to my frustration as a researcher, I can’t determine when. Consensus is, he died in about 1980. As of Oct 2022, the public research room at the Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records is closed. When it reopens, I hope to resolve the question.
Ease It has taken its own twists and turns. The short-lived Jazztime label released only three albums in 1961 before shutting down. Copies of Ease It are in short supply, and now fetch $700-$800 on the collectors market. Later reissues on Muse and Black Lion, regrettably, were released under Kenny Dorham’s name. Black Lion even retitled it West 42nd Street, the name of a Dorham tune on this album. The price of Rocky Boyd’s obscurity: even his most lasting accomplishment was taken away from him. Three of the four streaming services I checked don’t have Ease It, while the fourth has Dorham’s West 42nd Street. A CD version may be available on the Fresh Sounds label.
Rocky Boyd’s own story is incomplete, but one thing is for sure. His quintet could play some serious hard bop. Here is “Avars” an original Boyd composition from Ease It. He gets right down to it, doesn’t he?