Monday, December 18, 2017

Book Review: The Boston Jazz Chronicles

Somehow, I seem to have let this wonderful book slip through the cracks, but my recent post on the Duke Ellington band shook the cobwebs out and I'm back to feature it today. Author Richard Vacca does a wonderful job bringing back a Boston long gone, a city just over the horizon for many of us. Vacca gives us the people, the music and the clubs that once made Boston a swingin' town, if not a center of jazz like the behemoth to our south-west.

Rather than go through the book, I'll send you to his web site, which is chock-full of great little articles on local musicians, visiting giants and the clubs where they played.

Monday, December 11, 2017

On July 26, 1939, the Duke Ellington band played a show on the summer terrace rooftop venue of Boston's Ritz Carlton hotel. One set was broadcast by the NBC network by way of WBZ in Boston. Live music from remote sites were a programming bonanza for the radio networks. The bands weren't paid by the stations or networks, but the publicity generated by the shows nationwide allowed bands to ask for more money from live gigs. The Ellington band made its name nationally with its broadcasts from the Cotton Club in Harlem.

This version of the Ellington band carried two Bostonians - alto sax master Johnny Hodges (born in Cambridge) and baritone sax pioneer Harry Carney. Both lived on Hammond street, where the South End and lower Roxbury meet. The band spent quite a bit of time in New England and the Boston area. Early on, they played summers in Salem, MA, and later played the New England circuit of clubs, dance halls and theatres. With a fairly dense population, New England allowed the band to play many one nighters in a row with little travel from location to location. Thus, they could give New York a rest, squeeze in a lot of paydays, and get home in reasonable time. Regions like the Midwest required much more travel between gigs, and made less money for them.

The Ellington band with Ivie Anderson.

The songs:

a jazz potpourri
lawrence brown stomething to live for
johnny hodges old king dooji?
ivie anderson in a mist
ivie again rose of the rio grande
pussy willow
ivie you can count on me
way low

The band:

Alto Saxophone, Baritone Saxophone, Clarinet – Harry Carney
Alto Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone – Johnny Hodges
Tenor Saxophone – Otto Hardwicke*
Tenor Saxophone, Clarinet – Barney Bigard
Trombone – Joe Nanton, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown
Trumpet – Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Wallace Jones
Bass – Billy Taylor
Drums – Sonny Greer
Piano – Duke Ellington

Monday, December 4, 2017

Shocking Murder of Bandleader!

May 10, 1919

In the early years of the 20th century, James Reese Europe was probably the leading African American figure in popular music. Reese came to New York at a time when it was difficult for black musicians to get jobs in theaters and dance halls. He helped organize the first African American musician's hiring hall in Harlem, and led a major fund-raising concert that gave the group its first publicity. Soon after, he connected with Vernon and Irene Castle, providing them with music for their dance shows.

The Castles were among the first superstars of 20th century entertainment, teaching the New York social set - and the rest of the country - to do the new social partner dances that were sweeping the nation. Irene has been called the first modern woman, and Vernon showed that a man who spent his time dancing - rather than sticeng to the business of making money around the clock at the office - could be a respected figure. Irene said that Europe had taught them with Foxtrot (which they then 'cleaned up' for genteel society), and the  association with the Castles made Europe the black bandleader of the era.

Europe enlisted in the army during WWI, and was asked to form a band for his regiment. The band, known as the 'Hellfighters' due to their regimental name, became the favorite of General Pershing, and played to the acclaim of French audiences.

On his return from France (I almost wrote Europe), Europe and the band began a tour to take advantage of the publicity they had been accorded. The Boston Globe article that reports the crime states that the Mechanics's Building show was his first in Boston. I have a book that says they played at the Boston Opera House first, and moved to the Mechanic's Building for its larger hall.

One of two drummers, a young man named Herbert Wright, had been acting strangely during recent concerts, wandering across the stage while singers were performing. It seems as if between shows, Wright approached Europe in his dressing room, ranted at him, and then struck him across the neck with a pocket knife. Wright was subdued by some musicians, and the police called. Europe's jugular vein had been cut, and while he was taken to a hospital, he did not survive the attack.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Book Review: Imagining Boston: A Literary Landscape

In Imagining Boston, author Shaun O'Connell provides a survey of the best known authors who came from Boston, spent time in Boston, or lived anywhere in the general vicinity while they did their writing. Which means that the connection to Boston in the writing is sometimes rather tangential. Then again, books by Bostonians about Boston would make a quick read. The usual suspects of the first half of the 19th Century are here - Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, etc. If the book stopped there, it would have covered material already mined over many times. Luckily, we get authors of 20th Century cultural history references, like Martin Green, Dennis P. Ryan and Gary Willis, and autobiography from Theodore H. While and Charles Angoff. And new to me, the edited diaries of the lunatic Arthur C. Inman. For that reference alone, this book was worth reading.

Imagining Boston

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Once Upon A Time On Dover Street

I've had an eye out for Boston-themed poetry for a while now, and just came upon a keeper in the 1936 anthology Best Loved Poems of the American People, edited by Hazel Kellerman, editor of the Queries and Answers page of the New York Times Book Review for 15 years. Ms Kellerman received inquiries for favorite poems over the years, and collected them in this volume.

When I saw Dover street in the first line of this poem, I knew I had to look. The name of the poet was not familiar to me, but many if not most of the poems in the collection were not written by 'name' poets, and would never be anthologized today. In fact, the book is full of the kind of verse one would expect from the popular culture of the time - inspirational, patriotic, motherhood, humor, etc. It was when I looked up the author's name that things got interesting.

James Norman Hall was born in Iowa in 1887, and graduated from Grinnell College in 1910. He then moved to Boston to get a Master's degree in writing at Harvard. In England at the start of World War I, Hall enlisted in Lord Kitchener's Volunteers. Returning to the States (and Boston), he wrote his first book, Kitchener's Mob, the first pro-British book of the war. After returning to the war and winning the Croix de Guerre, the returned to the United States. In 1920, Hall moved to Tahiti, and with his writing partner, Charles Nordhoff, wrote many books, including Mutiny on the Bounty. Who knew? I'm one of the many people who saw the movie but never read the book.

At some point during his time in Boston, Hall wrote the following poem. A bit of a clunker, no doubt, but I think the plain-spoken language fits the topic.

Eat And Walk
James Norman Hall

There's a three-penny lunch on Dover street
With a cardboard sign in the window: Eat.
Three steps down to the basement room,
Two gas jets in a sea of gloom;
Four-square counter, stove in the center,
Heavy odor of food as you enter;
A kettle of soup as large as a vat,
Potatoes, cabbage, morsels of fat.
Bubbling up in a savory smoke -
Food for the Gods when the Gods are broke.
A wreaked divinity serving it up,
A hunk of bread and a steaming cup;
Three penny each, or two for a nickel,
An extra cent for a relish of pickle.
Slopping it up, no time for the graces -
Why should they come, these men with faces
Gaunt with hunger, battered with weather
In walking the streets for days together?
No delicate sipping, no leisurely talk -
The rule of the place is Eat and Walk.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Link Time: Irish Boston History & Heritage

I just found another Boston history blog that's definitely worth a look: Irish Boston History and Heritage. My own Boston Irish history only goes back one generation - my father's family spent time in East Cambridge before moving across the river.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Review: Witches, Rakes and Rogues

If you're interested in Boston's Colonial Era naughtiness, this is the book for you. Salem didn't have all the witches, and adultery, illegitimacy and divorce were not unknown to Boston's Puritans. Mix in swindlers, thieves and fraudsters, and the City on a Hill looks a little less upright. The book does suffer from a lack of documentation - we are going back three hundred years and more. This leaves some of the stories a bit thin. Not what I'd call a thrilling read, but interesting in a mild way.

Witches, Rakes and Rogues