Label for Crystal-Tone 521B

Crystal-Tone 521B, “What Can I Say Dear After I Say I’m Sorry,” by Ray Borden

Over the July 4 holiday weekend in 1948, the members of Ray Borden’s big band staged a coup. They fired him, and named Nat Pierce, the band’s pianist and arranger, their new leader.

Trumpeter Ray Borden first organized a big band in Boston in 1941, but it was not successful. He joined Stan Kenton’s band in late 1942 and remained until spring 1944. He then worked short stints with a half-dozen other name bands, including those of Jack Teagarden and Bobby Sherwood. In late 1945, he organized a new Boston band, and as it developed, it employed most of the area’s best white modern jazz players. They recorded at least four sides in 1946 that were never released, but they had better luck in 1947. The Borden band recorded six sides for Manny Koppelman’s Crystal-Tone Records, and released them in early 1948.

At the time of the Crystal-Tone sessions, the band included trumpeters Gait Preddy and Don Stratton, and tenor saxophonist Chuck Stentz. Five members of Shorty Sherock’s 1946 band jumped to Borden’s: trombonist Mert Goodspeed, alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano, drummer Joe MacDonald, and pianist/arranger Nat Pierce. The Crystal-Tone recordings showed a band that was tight, capable, and modern in outlook.

Passing the Baton to Nat Pierce

But not enough people heard the Borden band, and apparently Borden didn’t have the respect of his men. Mert Goodspeed remembered that “Borden was a fun guy, a lot of clowning around, but he was not cut out to be a bandleader.” His “management style” was plagued by missteps. Finally, in June 1948, Borden arranged a meeting with a representative of one of the major record labels, who liked the Crystal-Tones…and Borden blew off the meeting. The rep went back to New York, and that was that.

The unhappy band members met in early July and voted to fire Borden and replace him with Nat Pierce. Said Goodspeed: “Nat captured the spirit of the band.”

Photo of Nat Pierce at the piano

Nat Pierce in 1963

Pierce, at the time, was inaugurating the jazz policy at the Hi-Hat. Prior to the summer of 1948, this famous Boston jazz club was a whites-only dine-and-dance place, and they started jazz that summer with a trio—Pierce, Mariano, and MacDonald. (In the fall, the club brought in the Sabby Lewis band, and that’s when jazz really got rolling at the Hi-Hat.) Pierce came up working on the Boston buckets-of-blood circuit, with Nick Jerret at the Silver Dollar Bar, and with Sam Margolis and Marquis Foster at Izzy Ort’s. After that, he went with big bands, with Carl Nappi, Shorty Sherock, and Borden. Pierce arranged most of Borden’s Crystal-Tone recordings, the Basie influence already apparent.

Pierce had no more success finding work than Borden had been, and that fall Larry Clinton hired Pierce and six of his bandmates (Goodspeed, MacDonald, Preddy, alto saxophonist Sebastian Giacco, guitarist Steve Hester, and bassist Frank Vaccaro) for his new modern band. At the same time, clarinetist Tommy Reynolds  organized his “band of tomorrow,” and Stratton and trombonist Sonny Truitt went with him.

The first Nat Pierce Orchestra thus broke up before it really got started. Neither the Clinton nor Reynolds bands lasted very long, either. By spring 1949, Pierce and most of his bandmates were back in Boston and ready to try again. In May they recorded for the independent Motif label, with one 78 (Motif M003) resulting. “Autumn in New York” featured alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano, the band’s star soloist, then still developing his own sound. The flip side, “Goodbye Mr. Chops,” marked the recording debut of Teddi King, the band’s vocalist. A singer of impeccable phrasing and articulation, she never liked “Chops” because it didn’t represent her style of singing.

Trombonist Mert Goodspeed said that the band elected Pierce their leader because he represented the band’s spirit of modernism and experimentation. They had a great sense of camaraderie. All the band’s members were in their twenties and single, most attended Schillinger House or one of the conservatories, and all were committed to the modern music of the time. They shared a purpose and believed they were doing something good. Half of the band members lived in four-dollar rooms in houses at 454 and 458 Mass Ave, next to the Hi-Hat. Pierce even wrote and recorded a song about one, “Pad 458” (Crystal-Tone 524). If business was slow, Julie Rosenberg, owner of the Hi-Hat, let the guys sit and listen all evening for the price of a beer. On hot summer nights, they sat on the steps of the Mechanics Building and talked about Bartok and Bird and Stravinsky’s writing for Woody Herman.

The Pierce Band Honor Roll

Pierce, a Basie-inspired pianist and the band’s chief arranger, was of course a constant, but the band’s sound owed much to its most dedicated members. These included Mariano, saxophonist Dave Chapman, trombonist and arranger Sonny Truitt, trumpeter Don Stratton, bassist Frank Gallagher, and drummer Joe MacDonald. They showcased that sound on their later sides for Motif, “Seersucker Blues” and “It Might as Well Be Spring” (M007), and “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (M006). “You Don’t Know” featured Teddi King, the other three were band numbers. Motif recorded other titles that remained unissued for 25 years, when Art Zimmerman collected all of them for an LP (Nat Pierce Orchestra 1948-1950, Zim 1005).

Cover of LP Nat Pierce Orchestra 1948-50

Nat Pierce Orchestra 1948-50; caricature of Pierce by David X. Young.

The sad thing is that the band starved. Charlie Shribman hired Pierce’s band to work weekends at the Symphony Ballroom in the winter and spring of 1950, and that was their most consistent period of employment. Promoters simply did not take chances on new bands in 1950-51. They wanted sure things, not fresh faces. Pierce was an optimist and kept plugging away, but even he despaired when the owner of Motif Records vanished into the night with the masters and whatever money the band was due.

After an extended period without work, Pierce had enough. In September 1951 he left Boston, replacing Dave McKenna in the Woody Herman Orchestra. He stayed with Woody for five years. His band scattered to the wind.

Pierce’s band was crucial to the development of modern jazz in Boston, as was Pierce himself. He was instrumental in moving Boston jazz out of its late-forties doldrums.