Boston is not Kansas City, or New Orleans, or Chicago, but it has played an important role in the history of Jazz. Columbus Avenue was the center of Boston’s jazz scene, with clubs and taverns featuring live music. This history is recorded in Richard Vacca’s Boston Jazz Chronicles.
We had a chance to talk to Mel King about Boston’s jazz scene in his youth.
Boston’s jazz scene was lively.
Boston was–and is–home to some great musicians. Two of Duke Ellington’s stalwart musicians, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, were from Boston.
Nat Hentoff, probably the leading critique and journalist of jazz–as well as other genres, and the best friend the First and Fourth Amendments ever had, grew up in Roxbury, graduated from Boston Latin, and has written one of the classic Boston autobiographies–Boston Boy: Growing Up with Jazz and Other Rebellious Passions.
Here is a great documentary on Nat Hentoff, The Pleasures of Being Out of Step
In 1958, Nat Hentoff produced a TV special, “The Sound of Jazz,” and brought together some extraordinary musicians. Here is one of the great all-time moments–Billie Holiday and Lester Young on “Fine and Mellow”
Another story worth telling is of George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival and of other jazz festivals around the country. He started a nightclub, Storyville, and the rest is history–a history he tells very well in his book, Myself Among Others.
George Wein with Duke Ellington and Errol Garner.
Billie Holiday recorded an album at Storyville!
Sarah Vaughan played at Storyville, and ran into Boston’s notorious blue laws. Under the local laws, the Sabbath was to be kept holy, and no secular music could be performed on Sunday. Sarah was playing at Storyville one Saturday night, and Wein noticed a couple of Boston Police officers arriving shortly before midnight, when Sarah was supposed to begin her next set. If she sang, Wein knew, they would shut down the club; if she did not sing, he would have a roomful of angry patrons and would have to face the wrath of the Divine One. So he had the presence of mind to ask Miss Vaughan to begin with her a capella rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer”. She was puzzled, but did so–as she approached the microphone, the police officers began to approach the stage–but stopped when they heard her singing. Was this a nightclub performance, or a worship service? They turned around and left.
Lest we think that Boston’s part in jazz is the stuff of ancient history, there is still music to be heard–even on Sundays. Check out current live jazz in Boston Live Jazz Now! in the clubs, and on the internet, you can always hear jazz on WGBH Jazz 24/7!