Pianist, vocalist, and bandleader Mabel Robinson Simms, recognized as a Boston Jazz Pioneer by the New England Jazz Alliance in 2004, was born on March 29, 1914.
Born Mabel Brown in Cape Charles, Va, she was raised in nearby Norfolk, and moved to Boston at age 17. There she took up the piano seriously. In 1937, while waitressing by day at Slade’s, she started working as a single at the Monterrey Cafe on Columbus Avenue.
By January 1939 she was leading her own group at the Swanee Grill (better known as Johnny Wilson’s; Wilson owned the club) on Tremont Street, where she worked regularly until spring 1943. Then she moved around the corner to Little Dixie on Mass Ave, leading a group called the Four Rhythm Aces, until December. In January 1944 she joined the Phil Edmunds Orchestra at the same club.
She married in 1939 and began performing as Mabel Robinson. Although she divorced William Robinson in 1943, she used that name until 1954, when she married John Simms. She was known professionally thereafter as Mabel Robinson Simms.
One of her interludes away from Johnny Wilson’s was in 1941, when she led a group at the Paradise Grill in Bowdoin Square. Her drummer was working his first professional gig, at age 16—Roy Haynes. It’s a wonder the club didn’t get in trouble for hiring the underage Haynes. Or maybe he was just that good.
Robinson got to know Sammy Davis, Sr. at the Little Dixie, where he worked with Will Mastin and his precocious son Sammy Jr. in the Will Mastin Trio. Davis helped Robinson get established in New York, and by March 1944 she was working at Bud Harris’s club in Harlem. For whatever reason, though, she didn’t stay in New York, and was back in Boston by 1945. Here her career thrived in clubs like Little Dixie, Wally’s Paradise, the Hi-Hat, and the Monte Cristo. In 1950 she began her run at Boston’s celebrated after-hours spot, the Pioneer Club, as a combination pianist/club hostess. She stayed at the Pioneer until 1955.
In 1956 and 1957 her trio, with her sister Frances Brown and Bill Tanner, worked the clubs in the South End. In 1958 Simms began her ten-year association with the Moulin Rouge, and then the My Apartment Lounge, at the Hotel Vendome. She retired from professional performing in 1968 but remained active. She was, for instance, one of the original performers in Steppin’ Out, the annual benefit for the Dimock Community Health Center in Boston.
Simms, who died in 2005, did not leave behind any recordings, so her sound and her style are unfortunately lost to history. That’s the unfortunate story with others on the Boston scene, and every other scene, as well. There are just too many we’ll never have a chance to hear for ourselves.