“Bunk in Beantown with Bechet Band,” read Down Beat’s headline on March 15, 1945. DB reported on Sidney Bechet’s arrival at the Savoy Cafe, accompanied by New Orleans trumpeter William “Bunk” Johnson. Bechet, also from New Orleans, was an early jazz pioneer and a master of the clarinet and soprano saxophone. Johnson, though active in early New Orleans, told a good story, but his actual role and influence remained unclear. Inactive in the 1930s, Johnson was  “rediscovered” in the early 1940s, and in Sidney Bechet’s new band in March 1945.

Photo of Sidney Bechet Quintet

Fred Moore, Pops Foster, Bunk Johnson, Sidney Bechet, and Hank Duncan in Boston, 1945

Bechet’s band would alternate on the Savoy bandstand with the quartet of alto saxophonist Pete Brown, playing with local men including bassist Lloyd Trotman.

The engagement did not go well. Sidney Bechet, not a man of mild temperament himself, clashed almost immediately with the unpredictable and hard-drinking Johnson. When Johnson was on, he was good, but he wasn’t on very often. Nat Hentoff, then a deejay broadcasting these sessions over WMEX radio, told the story that Bechet would leave the bandstand and sit down front with shots of whisky lined up on his table, listening to Bunk play. When Sidney didn’t like what he heard, which happened often, he’d down a shot and throw the glass at Johnson.

This went on for about three weeks. In early April, Bechet fired Johnson and brought in young Johnny Windhurst to play trumpet, and things settled down. Bechet’s band stayed at the Savoy until early June. This engagement marked the beginning of the “Dixieland Revival” in Boston.

Here is Bechet’s quintet with Bunk Johnson, from one of those WMEX broadcasts. The rest of the group included Hank Duncan on piano, Fred Moore on drums, and Pops Foster on bass, who became quite a crowd favorite at the Savoy.