If I ever assemble a top-ten list of “Boston Jazz Scene All-Time Good Guys,” Lennie Sogoloff will certainly be on it. Sogoloff operated his famous club, Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike in suburban West Peabody, from 1962 to 1972, and he made it one of the area’s elite jazz rooms. Ask anybody who played there or listened there.
Here’s a thumbnail biography of Lennie Sogoloff (1923-2014). He served in the army in World War II, and kicked around a bit afterward before going to work as a distributor for London and Mercury Records. Sogoloff partnered with his friend Phillip “Penny” Abell in 1951 and bought a roadhouse on Route 1 that they named the Turnpike Club. (It was on the northbound side, just shy of today’s Hwy 114 exit.) There was a jukebox for entertainment—a very good jukebox, because Lennie stuffed it with jazz records. Sogoloff bought out his partner, and in 1959 began offering live music for dancing. The first jazz groups arrived in 1960, and in 1962 Sogoloff renamed the club Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike and went all-in on jazz. He booked his first national act in 1963.
I’ve written about Lennie’s before. There’s a club history, and posts on some special nights there: Gretsch Drum Night, a Hines/Byard/Corea piano festival, and Jaki Byard recording his album Live at Lennie’s. This time, I’m letting Lennie tell a few stories himself.
It was my good fortune to interview Lennie Sogoloff at length twice. What follows are a few of Lennie’s recollections of artists who came through the club in the sixties. I’ve done a little editing and checked a few facts, but otherwise it’s all from the colorful storyteller Buddy Rich nicknamed “Lennie Turnpike.”
Stablemates: Benny Golson and Herb Pomeroy
“I had Herb Pomeroy’s big band booked for a Monday night. The week before, I was vacationing up in New Hampshire, I was with my wife and kids. I talked to Herb in the middle of the week just to firm up everything. He said, “Lennie, I don’t think we can make it Monday night. Some of the guys have other commitments.” I said, “Let me think about it, and I’ll call you back.”
Benny Golson was at the club that week. I called Benny, asked if he could stay over one more night. Then I could put Herb and Benny together in front of our rhythm section. Benny said he’d stay. I called Herb back, and he jumped at it. It worked. Musically, it was sensational. You know, it was like the Jazztet, with Benny and Art Farmer, but with Herb on trumpet. And they played “Stablemates” and all those things that Benny wrote for Herb. Some of the crowd was disappointed because the big band wasn’t there, but it was so exciting, hearing those two with our rhythm section. The club was all about things like that.” (It happened on April 15, 1963, with the house trio of Ray Santisi, Larry Richardson, and Alan Dawson.)
“The thing that made me a little different from the average owner was imagination. I had Illinois Jacquet coming in, with Jo Jones on drums. But I started thinking about Jazz at the Philharmonic, because both Jacquet and Jones were part of it, and I wondered what Flip Phillips was doing. I found out Flip was living down in Pompano Beach, semi-retired, playing on the weekends down there. So I decided to get Flip up here for one day, have him play for the matinee and the evening. I even called it Jazz at the Philharmonic Revisited…You used to have to dazzle them with your footwork sometimes when you’re out on the highway.” (The date was November 10, 1968.)
One-Nighters with Woody Herman
“Woody Herman was the first big band that we had. A one-nighter in June, 1964. And I remember I was nervous about it because I’d never had a band that size play the club. I never paid that much money for somebody for one night, either. It wasn’t really that much, maybe 700 bucks for the one-nighter. But, to make sure that I packed the house, I advertised 10 bucks a person, all you can drink and eat. The poor guy on the roast beef slicer almost broke his elbow slicing meat that night. I’ll never forget it. And Woody’s band was sensational. That was when Phil Wilson was in that band. Phil Wilson and the other trombone player, Henry Southall. Phil was a buoyant type, and Henry was very introverted. I called them the odd couple. And Woody had a great band. All the bands that he had here were good.
Later (June 1967), Woody came in the club to do a special night as part of an ABC television production, a documentary film called One Night Stand. On a Monday, when I already had Wes Montgomery working. It was a wild night. Woody’s band was thrilled to be here so the guys could catch Wes Montgomery. It eventually showed up on television, but I think they edited it to about a minute-and-a-half. But it was very exciting to have an ABC crew come up from D.C., from the White House and President Johnson on Sunday, to my shack on Monday.
Joe Williams, Don Ellis, and a Finale on the Fourth
“We had a big Fourth of July weekend set for 1967—we had Joe Williams booked at the club, but then Willard Alexander called me and said, “You got to give my band from Newport a shot, a one-nighter. I need a one-nighter.” What band from Newport, I asked. “Don Ellis and his 18-piece orchestra.” I said, “Willard, I got Joe Williams here. And what the hell, it’s Fourth of July week, and I don’t need another big band.” He’s begging. “You’ve got to do me a favor, Lennie. You’ve got to. It’s gonna be the band of the ‘70s.” This was 1967. Finally I said okay, and we set up for an 18-piece orchestra for one night. What a night! Oh, that band was magnificent! And at the end of the night, Joe sang with them. I let Willard talk me into a second night. When Joe Williams worked for me, he worked with only a rhythm section. But on the Fourth, at the end of the night, they did a grand finale. And you know, I was big for grand finales.”
The Art of Hiring a Substitute
“Here’s another one. I had Charlie Byrd for a week at the club. And he told me in advance that on Wednesday night, he had a thing that he had to do in Washington D.C. I got Atilla Zoller to fill in for him.
Now, on Thursday, Charlie was supposed to be back at the club. And I was on some errand somewhere, and I called my wife at home. She said, “Oh, thank God you called. Charlie Byrd won’t be able to make it tonight.” This was around one in the afternoon. “Why?” “They’re fogged in at National Airport and they can’t get out of Washington.” And that was the whole band, Charlie’s trio. So I didn’t even have a rhythm section. I said, “We’ll come up with something. Let me get a rhythm section and work from there.”
So, I got the rhythm section, but I couldn’t get a front guy. I called Junior Cook, he was teaching at Berklee that year, but he couldn’t make it. Tried a couple other guys, no luck. You know, the rhythm section I would have gone with, but I wanted one more guy.
So I’m at the club and the telephone rings and it’s a guy by the name of Jack Hackett, who owned a restaurant over in Topsfield, the Lakeside, a great restaurant. It so happens that Bobby Hackett is his cousin, and Bobby was in town and Jack was putting a party together, and wanted to come to the club to see Charlie Byrd. I said, “Oh, really? How many are you going to be?” He said, “Party of nine.” I said, “It might be a party of eight. Is Bobby there?” He said, “Yeah, he’s right here.” I said, “Get him on the phone.”
So I told Bobby what was happening. “In other words, Bobby, how about working tonight instead of sitting down? You can sit out there and watch the rhythm section and then get up and play.” He asked just one question. “Will Alan Dawson be there?” I said, “Yeah, he’s going to be on drums.” And he said, “It’s a deal.” And I was out front changing the sign: One Night Only, Bobby Hackett. Honest to God. Now, that was a lucky one! (Not certain of this date; my best guess is October 1967. Byrd was working with a trio then, and Junior Cook was at Berklee during the 1967-68 academic year.)
And Roy Kral Says “Thanks!”
“Jackie and Roy never played my place, but they were here as guests. They were working at Paul’s Mall, and they came in one night to hear Zoot and Al (November 1965). And Dave Lambert had borrowed Zoot’s car for the weekend. He was down the Cape. So, Dave showed up with the car, and he got up and sang with Zoot and Al. I didn’t ask Jackie and Roy to do anything, it was their night off. On their way out, Roy Kral said, “This is the best night I’ve ever spent in a jazz club just sitting in the audience.” I thanked him, and said it was quite a tribute.”
It was quite a tribute, and well-earned. This seems to be a good place to end these words from Lennie Sogoloff. I’ll bet there are others out there who had the best night they ever spent sitting in a jazz club at Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike.