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.
“The Most Exciting Small Group in Recent Years”
On January 28, George Frazier fairly gushed in his column in the Boston Herald. Under the headline, “Frankie Newton’s Band Most Exciting Small Group Here in Recent Years,” Frazier opined:
Frankie Newton’s band at the Savoy on Columbus Avenue is far and away the most exciting small group to play Boston within at least the past ten years. Newton is one of the more distinguished trumpet players around today and his performance each night is in itself enough inducement for you to drop by the Savoy. He’s not a powerhouse trumpeter, but a musician who plays subtly and exquisitely…It’s Jazz, Jazz, Jazz every minute they’re on the stand. You’re missing something authentic and heartfelt if you fail to hear them.
And the people did turn out to hear them. Originally signed for six weeks, Savoy manager Steve Connolly extended them for six more, and after that, Down Beat reported they’d been extended indefinitely. That probably meant until June, those being the days when clubs closed for the summer. But Newton was back for a month in the fall, with Dickenson and Herbert alongside, as well as tenor saxophonist Franz Jackson.
On October 11, the band moved to the Back Bay, to the Club Vanity Fair, on Newbury Street. During this engagement, Newton featured local alto saxophonist Ted Goddard, soon bound for Benny Goodman’s Orchestra. They remained at the Vanity Fair through mid November. The newspapers reported that the college crowd was packing the jam sessions.
George Wein got to know Newton during those months. At that same time, Newton began his long courtship of Ethel Klein, whose presence in Boston certainly encouraged Newton’s frequent visits. They had more than a love of jazz in common, though. Both were active supporters of progressive causes, and members of the Communist party, back before you could get arrested for that.
From November 24 through May 1943 (except for the mandatory closure following the Cocoanut Grove fire), Newton moved to the Ken Club in the Theatre District, with alto saxophonist Floyd “Horsecollar” Williams taking over the saxophone chair. The Ken’s Sunday jam sessions drew musicians from New York, and the better young Bostonians, such as Roy Haynes and Lloyd Trotman, lined up to play with them. Proclaimed the Ken’s advertisements: “Newton, Dickenson, and Horsecollar are here every night. They never blew a schmaltzy note in their lives!”
Frankie Newton was probably playing at his very best during this period. He and Dickenson and Herbert were a tight unit by then, and there is no telling what treasures we missed because of the AFM recording ban.
A Postwar Ramble on Huntington Avenue
Newton was mostly absent from Boston venues for two years starting in mid 1943. But after the war ended, he was back with some regularity, starting with two weeks at the Savoy in October 1945. In fact, Newton lived in the city for long stretches at least twice. The first was in 1946, when he resided at 702 Tremont Street in the South End. That building stood where the firehouse stands today.
Newton started 1946 working the jam sessions at the Copley Terrace, a club on Huntington Avenue just outside Copley Square. His house band for these sessions was the Vinal Rhythm Kings, a crew of young area musicians swept up in the postwar fever for Dixieland jazz. They included trombonist Ralph Ferrigno, pianist Everett Schwarz, and bassist John Field. And these being jam sessions, the band in the house during the week found their way to the bandstand on their day off, too. They included Pee Wee Russell, Max Kaminsky, and Buzzy Drootin. There were plenty of fireworks on Huntington Avenue on those Sundays! When Kaminsky and company departed in early May, Newton started working during the week, too, with the house band of trombonist Sparky Tomasetti. It only ended when the club shut down for the summer.
There is little evidence of Newton in Boston in 1947, but he was in town for one concert with political overtones, the “Jiant Jazz Jamboree” (yes, Jiant) on May 18 at the Opera House. Maybe the concert’s sponsorship appealed to him—the Massachusetts chapter of the Progressive Citizens of America. Perhaps the sponsors delivered political messages from the stage that night, but mostly, the event was about music. It was billed as Dixieland versus Swing, with different sextets playing each style of music. A formidable crew, Art Hodes and his Backroom Boys, represented Dixieland. With Art were Sidney Bechet, Wild Bill Davison, Ralph Ferrigno, Pops Foster, and Baby Dodds. The swingsters responded with Frank Newton’s Super Six, with the trumpeter leading local men Goddard, Drootin, Field, Schwarz, and guitarist Don Alessi.
Nat Hentoff, writing in his Counterpoint newsletter, noted the concert, while musically excellent, was a financial bust. It drew fewer than a thousand listeners, less than a third of house capacity. And Nat heard of “a few Republican jazzers who didn’t show up because of the radical nature of the sponsoring agency.” All of that is a story for another day.
A Horn for Frankie Newton
The next episode in Frankie Newton’s Boston story doesn’t even include Newton, at least not directly. In the summer of 1948, a fire in Newton’s New York apartment destroyed all his belongings, including his horns. Newton played mainly trumpet, but he also owned a cornet, a bass trumpet, and perhaps a few others, too. He lost them all.
Some of his Boston fans heard the news and organized a benefit to help him. The ringleaders of this effort were members of the defunct Jazz Society, a volunteer organization that had staged some 40 concerts between 1944 and 1946, some featuring Newton. Richard Schmidt, the Society’s former president, announced the group was coming out of retirement to stage a benefit on July 25, a “rent party,” to raise funds so Newton could buy a new horn.
Schmidt asked Steve Connolly to open the Savoy for one evening, even though it was closed for the summer. Connolly readily agreed. To organize the musicians, Schmidt called on John Field and Ev Schwarz, both former officers of the Jazz Society. They anchored the house band, and lined up musicians like Sabby Lewis and Ruby Braff to sit in. Trumpeter Johnny Windhurst came up from New York as a special guest. And finally Hentoff, yet another former Jazz Society member, talked it up on his WMEX radio program.
Was the evening a success? I’m sure the music was inspired, an oasis of jazz in the dry summer. But I’ve never learned if they raised any money. I saw nothing reported in the Boston papers, or anywhere else, either. Regardless, Schmidt and the others deserve great credit for organizing this session on behalf of their friend. Six years after that first winter at the Savoy, Frankie Newton still cast a long shadow there.
George Wein and Le Jazz Doux
George Wein called Newton back to town for a concert at Jordan Hall on March 1, 1949, celebrating the history of jazz, “From Brass Bands to Bebop.” This was Wein’s first big concert, which he staged together with Edmond Hall. Besides Hall and Newton, others on the stage included Wild Bill Davison and the various Vinal Rhythm Kings. Unlike the Jiant Jamboree, though, this concert sold out. Riding that wave, Wein asked Newton to hang around town for a while to help him with a new venture, a small club in an upstairs room at the Fensgate Hotel, to be called Le Jazz Doux—the quiet jazz. Newton played his beautiful muted trumpet there nightly, with George on piano.
Newton’s next date with Boston jazz history was May 20, 1950 at the Mid-Century Boston Jubilee on Boston Common. This was the city’s very first jazz festival, and some of its brightest young stars were leading bands—Ruby Braff, Charlie Mariano, Nat Pierce. And the Frank Newton All-Stars were there to open the show. They included trombonist Dick LeFave and drummer Joe Booker, but other personnel are unknown. Newton was at the Savoy at the time of the Boston Jubilee, and stayed there into June.
Later that year, Newton resided at 426 Mass Ave, either in an apartment above Wally’s Paradise, or in the building next to it. Either way, he had a short commute. In November and December, Newton co-led a band at Wally’s with trombonist J.C. Higginbotham. In early 1951, he led a trio there with pianist Ernie Trotman and drummer Eddie Bryant. He probably took a night off work on February 22, when he finally married Ethel Klein, confirming their years-long relationship. Prior to their moving to New York, though, Frankie sat in one night with Billie Holiday at Storyville in November. Down Beat does not tell us if they played “Strange Fruit.”
Newton’s health, however, was in decline in 1952, and he was drinking heavily. Wein tried to help. In March 1953, when June Christy canceled at Storyville, he filled in with Boston singer Pat Rainey, and asked Newton to lead the quartet playing with her. But as he wrote in his autobiography, “Frankie was a shell of his former self…once a proud, distinguished-looking man, he was now a confirmed alcoholic, and his posture and countenance were wracked with a feeling of futility. His playing bore similar signs of decay.” It was his last Boston gig. He died the following year at age 48, of acute gastritis.
Newton’s demise was tragic, and sad, but it doesn’t detract from the contributions he made to the Boston jazz scene, especially during those first vibrant years. Musically, he left this place better than he found it. I’ll hang my hat on that. It’s like a Boston reporter wrote in September 1942: “There’s only one word for Frankie Newton: magnificent.”
Just to remind you how pretty he played, here Newton plays an exquisite blues in 1939.