Boston Jazz in the 1970s – An Overview
During the Swing Era the evolving jazz world planted seeds that would guarantee the demise of jazz as a broadly popular music form. Miraculously, the music hung on during World War Two and the Bebop Era. Then, with the music on the verge of last breaths, something remarkable happened. At mid-century there was an explosion of popular interest in jazz throughout the U.S. One would have a difficult time convincing historians that public awareness of Chet Baker and Cannonball Adderley after 1950 was as great as that of Goodman and Basie in 1939, but the music was on the radio constantly (and even sometimes on TV). For about fifteen years the music was alive and flourishing, in the same way that a candle or incandescent bulb is brightest just before the light goes out.
In the mid-1960s things began to crumble. A personal reference may be helpful. When I was in high school in the late 1950s, a group of us would gather in the cafeteria before school started and read aloud the poetry of Bremser, Di Prima, Ferlinghetti, and others of the period and sometimes mention a recent LP purchase that would initiate questions about where Monk and Miles were taking their music. Fast forward less than ten years. I’m talking about jazz with a freshman high school class from an upper middle class town. These kids are bright and curious, and the discussion is a joy all around. Except for the fact that no one in the class has any idea who Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington are. Less than ten years.
And things have not improved. Now we have discovered that jazz is not dance music. Rather it is art music without the art funding. And maybe that’s a good thing.
During March 1978 bandleader/arranger Ernie Wilkins, in the city for a teaching stint, told The Boston Globe: "Outside of New York and possibly Los Angeles, Boston is one of the few cities that has more jazz happening from week to week than the others." His discovery is something that musicians from other cities settling in Boston almost always experience. But what Ernie Wilkins did not know is that in 1978 Boston was experiencing one of its down periods, as far as jazz activity is concerned. From approximately 1950 through 1965 Boston hit what many local musicians and fans would regard as the peak for jazz activity. The apparent decline of jazz activity in Boston began during the middle of the 1960s. Since the middle of the twentieth century Boston--although most "locals" at the time would not believe it--developed into a city that until the 1970s consistently was second or perhaps occasionally third only to New York as a haven for the jazz fan.
If the Boston jazz scene was in decline during the 1960s, it hit bottom during the 1970s. Probably no single event marked the extent of the crisis more significantly than the closing of the last major jazz club of the period in Boston, the Jazz Workshop/Paul's Mall performance complex on Boylston Street. The "names" wanted more money, and the seating capacity could not be increased. The complex brought in more non-jazz acts to offset the losses, but the doors closed on April 9, 1978. From the early 1970s various attempts--the Rise Club, Debbie's, and Jonathan Swift's among others--were made to prevent the club scene crash, but nothing durable and consistent came along until the end of the decade, about a year after Lulu White's opened and got rolling on Appleton Street.
Throughout the decline the real jazz fans were not sitting still. If anything, the 1970s jazz scene in Boston may be thought of as the time of jazz fusion and the birth of the jazz support groups (the former to some extent an impulse for the latter). For the most part, the birth of these jazz support groups was rooted in an attempt to counter a dying public interest in jazz. One of the new groups, the Boston Jazz Society, even had the ironically optimistic slogan, "Jazz is Alive." Among the best-known and most respected jazz support groups born in Boston in the 1970s are the Jazz Coalition, Studio Red Top, the Friends of Great Black Music, and the Boston Jazz Society.
The Boston Jazz Society, which celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary in 2008, is best known for sponsoring events to raise money for jazz scholarships and the apparently now-defunct annual food-and-jazz blowout known simply as The Barbecue. Although scholarship money has gone to some pretty well known area students (such as Antonio Hart and Branford Marsalis) some of the better-known Boston-bred musicians (such as Terri Lyne Carrington and Christopher Hollyday) missed out on the funds because their parents were BJS executives at the time.
The Great Black Music Loft in Roxbury (perhaps inspired by New York lofts of the time) was both a center of activity for jazz support in black Boston and a performance venue. People such as Syd Smart and Larry Roland paved the way as leaders of the Friends of Great Black Music. Building on the groundwork of such former Bostonians as Cecil Taylor and Sam Rivers, the Black Music Loft and its patrons helped local musicians make new music and eventually were a force behind the creation of the now-annual John Coltrane Memorial Concert Series.
Studio Red Top was promoting the best in local and national female improvisors long before it became politically correct to do so. More often than not (again ahead of the pack) when Studio Red Top produced events with people as diverse as Janet Grice and Marilyn Crispell it did so by presenting ensembles that included the best men also.
The Jazz Coalition, spearheaded by Mark Harvey and others with the help of Emmanuel Church, was one of the most important jazz support organizations to come to life in the 1970s. Founded in 1971, it presented musicians who performed using a variety of jazz styles, including some genuine cutting edge music. Although the organization sponsored a number of single events of note, such as the January 12, 1980 Emmanuel Church performance by the George Adams Quartet several years before he signed with Blue Note and which featured such fine percussion work by Joe Chambers, the Jazz Coalition is best remembered for the annual Jazz Week series beginning in 1973 and the Jazz All Night sessions. Emmanuel Church, under the direction of the Rev. A. L. Kershaw, began its jazz ministry in the mid-1960s. In 1974 the Rev. Kershaw brought in Mark Harvey to administer the Jazz/Arts Program at the church, a program that would continue under Harvey's direction until 1983. During the 1970s the Church of the Covenant, a short distance west of Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street, was home to the annual music highlight, the Jazz All Night concerts. The Jazz All Night events started at 8 p.m. and concluded with an 8 a.m. breakfast. These jazz marathons featured one or two "name" performers and virtually all the top musicians in Boston. A few of those dozens of local and national lights featured at Jazz All Night and other Coalition events were Claudio Roditi, Eula Lawrence, Billy Thompson, Pat Metheny, Randy Weston, Mark Harvey, Erica Lindsey, Al and Buzzy Drootin, Webster Lewis, Ricky Ford, Vic Dickenson, Stanton Davis, Mary Lou Williams, Julius Hemphill, Gunter Hampel, Arni Cheatham, Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, Phil Wilson, Sue Auclair (before there was Publicity!), Ronnie Gill, and Manny Williams. For example, an audience might be treated to Archie Shepp but also Jaki Byard (before he moved to New York), The Fringe (before their first trans-Atlantic tour), and Bill Pierce with James Williams (before they joined Art Blakey). One of the current legacies of those efforts is the local treasure, Mark Harvey's Aardvark Orchestra.
Out of all this organizing came two distinct—perhaps contradictory—paths of activity. On the one hand, there was a wave of post-Ayler activity resulting in the birth of John Coltrane Memorial concerts and a surge in post-Ayler and Coltrane-oriented musical activity in local clubs--everything from performances sponsored by the Friends of Great Black Music to weekly gigs by the Fringe at Michael’s Pub. This activity would bear particularly significant fruit in the 1980s.
On the other hand, with the support groups came a wistful look backward and anxiety over the future of what many fans defined as jazz (e.g., having chord changes and conventional time signatures) and a nostalgic longing for the “good old days.” This nostalgic component of jazz in the 1970s manifest itself primarily in three developments: the rebirth of trad bands, the general popularity of ragtime, and the birth of retro-jazz as a pervasive phenomenon.
Both nationally and locally there was a virtual explosion on the scene of “authentic” two-beat jazz ensembles and supportive magazines and journals. In the Boston area, there was the New Black Eagle Jazz Band and more than a half-dozen other like-minded outfits, some of which continue performing today. Ragtime, particularly with the success of the score to The Sting in 1973, became popular nation-wide. But few people or events brought the music to the public consciousness more effectively than the ragtime recordings by Brandeis University's Joshua Rifkin (beginning in 1970) and New England Conservatory's New England Ragtime Ensemble (1972).
The retro-jazz movement became a pervasive phenomenon nationally and locally to a great extent because of the success of several New Englanders who often used Boston as a base of operations, particularly a Rhode Island-bred youngster named Scott Hamilton and Vermont's Widespread Depression Jazz Orchestra. Before the decade was over the youngster who would become the most famous retro-jazz champion, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, was sitting in with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at Lulu White's. But by then the retro-jazz phenomenon was well underway, and even today we have not completely recovered.
Some Moments from the 1970s
New York's Collective Black Artists in Boston in 1974
Today spontaneous improvised conducting of jazz ensembles is fairly common in places such as New York and Boston. The practice goes back several decades during which young and now-fully mature jazz musicians and other improvisors have picked up and used improvisational architectural techniques. Improvised arrangement through signaled plug‑and‑play elements was inspired at least partially via the hand signals employed by New York's Collective Black Artists ensemble during the early 1970s. The spontaneous or improvised arrangement techniques likely were not the only influence on the third generation of leading edge musicians. Even though the Collective Black Artists used a music director (Stanley Cowell for example), in performance it was not uncommon for various musicians in the group (often the arranger of the work to be performed) to be given responsibility for conducting specific works. Although some of the music played by the ensemble in Boston in 1974 was organized and performed in a somewhat conventional manner, the performance of several of the works employed spontaneous conducting techniques. Some of those musicians would use "spontaneous arrangement" hand signals. For example, during the performance of a work that evening a musician might stand up and point to three or four musicians in the ensemble, indicate by hand signal what portion of the arrangement they would play, and give them a countdown by hand signal to specify exactly when the designated portion of the arrangement was to be played. And so forth. It is likely that the dispersion of responsibility among the musicians to modify the flexible arrangements was the original inspiration for the current technique in bands of spontaneous decision‑making by non‑soloists. The Collective Black Artists, a New York‑based non‑profit group, was founded in 1970 and, in addition to Cowell, included a diverse range of musicians such as Reggie Workman, Jimmy Owens, Charles Greenlee, Charli (then "Charles") Persip, Bob Stewart, Frank Foster, and others. The Collective Black Artists were politically involved in the New York area, among other activities offering concerts and lessons in prisons and public schools. One wishes that their constructive activism‑‑in addition to their music techniques‑‑were more commonly emulated today. The group performed occasionally outside the New York area, as in the case of the concert I witnessed at Northeastern University’s Alumni Hall on March 22, 1974. Of course, the musician best known today for pursuing these techniques is Lawrence "Butch" Morris who expanded the half dozen or ten hand gestures used by members of the Collective Black Artists ensemble eventually to more than twenty. We are fortunate that he and other creative musicians carry on and expand the improvisational practices first created and developed by musicians of New York’s Collective Black Artists.
A Studio Playback Session circa 1975
In the late 1960s through most of the 1980s the training research and development department I worked for developed self-instructional materials that incorporated audio and color images as well as readable text materials and other resources for students. One of the final steps in the development of audio components was the recording of script narration by professional announcers. We used Fleetwood Studios in Revere, Massachusetts for those sessions. As script writer and/or project supervisor on many of these projects often I was present at the recording sessions. The work was tedious, but the professional announcers were so good at what they did that the productions usually went along quite smoothly.
At the end of one session in 1975 (I think) two gentlemen walked into the studio for the next session with the engineer. Out of the corner of my eye the smaller of the two men looked familiar. Almost at the same moment my brain began processing that data. The sound engineer said, “That’s a famous jazz musician.” It was Bobby Hackett and his manager or agent. They had shown up to listen to a playback of Bobby Hackett’s most recent recording.
They probably were looking for sound problems and selecting tracks for his next album. I took advantage of the opportunity to return late to my office. I stayed in the studio control booth. I heard some fine music, talked off and on briefly with the cornetist, and had a delightful time just soaking up the experience. One conversation with the manager/agent sticks with me. The gentleman was determined to make the case that Hackett mopped up the floor with Dizzy on the 1971 recording Giants (Perception PLP 19). Neither Bobby Hackett nor I would have anything to do with that viewpoint about such an odd but fascinating pairing.
I was late getting back to the office, but with the perspective of time I wish had been a lot later.
A Benny Goodman concert at Symphony Hall – February 14, 1976
It was a Saturday night in Symphony Hall, and Benny Goodman showed up with Bobby Hackett, Al Klink, Peter Appleyard, Urbie Green, Hank Jones, Slam Stewart, Bucky Pizzerelli, and Connie Kay (with Grady Tate on drums during the warm-up session). The band offered more than two hours of fine music (including encores).
Goodman played well but didn’t solo as frequently as I would have liked. Maybe performing is getting to him. He’s in the middle of a series of one-nighters (NY yesterday, Boston tonight, Montreal Sunday...). After the concert he looked quite tired. But longtime Goodman veteran Klink demonstrated that there was no rust on him. I had brought my young sons to the concert, and fatigue would set in on occasion. Slam Stewart, with his musical and entertaining solos, was the perfect yawn antidote for them. And there were other fine performances. For me the biggest surprise was Peter Appleyard. With the possible exception of the leader, the vibes player consistently was the best soloist of the evening. He offered an array of intelligent, imaginative lines that included everything from rapid flashes of melody to complete silences. Given the mainstream context of the music, the constructive impact of his well-placed silences were eye-opening for me. So few musicians know when and how to leave “silent gaps” in their solos.
My kids and I went backstage for autographs. The experience was odd. When I walked into the room to meet him, I didn’t recognize Goodman at first (even though I’ve witnessed him onstage performing on a number of occasions). Standing at the same level as Goodman, I noticed he was shorter than I imagined, somewhat hunched over like an old man, and he looked very tired and frail. As we waited in line for the autographs, a very odd thing happened. He did not have a pen to use, and I gave him my pen so he could sign autographs for us. When he finished and we were about to leave, he still had my pen. It might have been a type of absent-mindedness on his part. I didn’t care about the pen, but I thought he might feel bad when he discovered that he had kept someone’s pen. So I offered him the pen, saying, “Would you like to keep the pen?”
His reaction was strange and wonderful. He realized that he had my pen and came out of a fog and smiled at his mistake. And with the sparkle of life that came to him with the smile, Benny Goodman once again looked like the band leader I saw onstage just a short while before this meeting. It was a rather startling transformation.
Note: Those with interest and the search bug can check out Ernie Santosuosso’s fine review of the concert in the February 16, 1976 issue of the Boson Globe.
Memories of Lulu White’s
During the late 1970s until its closing in 1981 Lulu White's on Appleton Street was the place to catch the most famous jazz musicians. There were other contemporaneous clubs around briefly--such as the Rise Club and Tinker's--that brought in the likes of Art Blakey and Archie Shepp. But Lulu White's was the place, particularly for mainstream jazz.
I hung around there pretty frequently, and, when the owners decided to encourage attendance with a "Lulu's Club" promotional deal, I could not refuse. The irresistible deal involved a $100 annual fee and a series of benefits for the club member. The primary benefit to club members was unlimited free entry to the venue for the member and a guest. Because the booking was similar to but much more substantive than that of such more recent clubs as the Regattabar or Scullers, for me it was a membership made in heaven. I am sure there were some weeks during which I did not show up, but they were the exceptions. At the time I had not yet learned that consuming large quantities of alcoholic beverages interfered with hearing the music. So Lulu's probably got its money back from me through purchases of drinks.
I found the place very comfortable. The waitresses were good-looking enough that they probably were worth catching even if there were no music. And they got to know me well enough that, when I showed up, they immediately would lead me over to my favorite table and bring me a Jack Daniels on the rocks without my saying a word. In addition to all of that, Lulu White's--from the standpoint of the jazz consumer--was the finest jazz venue of my experience. With the exception of a couple of poles, the site lines were superb. And even the table farthest from the action allowed for the most intimate of musical experiences. As a final touch, the club had atmosphere. Designed as a tribute to the famous New Orleans bordello, Lulu White's had visual style, including everything from a large portrait of the madam herself to the requisite red velveteen walls covered with photos of early jazz musicians to the wonderful E. J. Bellocq photos near the bar. Today few clubs in Boston and New York are more than a group of tables and a stage. A handful of basement clubs have atmosphere. But I've never known a club first-hand that had the combination of style, atmosphere, good seating arrangements, and high-quality music that Lulu White's had. On the other hand, Lulu's had its problems.
Various "acts" were attempted at the club. For several week ends Herb Pomeroy brought in a small band for dancing. My wife and I tried dancing, but--as in the case of the others who showed up--our hearts were not into dancing. We just wanted to sit there and listen to Herb, Alan Dawson, Andy McGhee, and the rest. Sometimes the word would not spread effectively, and I would find myself almost alone at one of the tables, witnessing some of the finest music I've ever heard, as when Joe Albany's solo piano work substituted for Jackie McLean's group or when Sam Rivers and Dave Holland surpassed by far anything they documented as a duo in the studio. Sometimes there were jam-packed one-nighters, as when the Art Ensemble of Chicago or cabaret star Blossom Dearie blew in. But usually the musicians that were brought in from New York and elsewhere performed for three or four days at a stretch. Phil Woods (eventually performing without the sound system because he liked the room’s acoustics) and some other leaders would insist on bringing in their own bands, but most headliners used the extraordinary house band consisting of Ray Santisi, Whit Browne, and Alan Dawson.
One of Alan Dawson's favorite musicians, of course, was Jo Jones. Jones did perform at Lulu's a couple of times, and for a period of about six months--and I'm not really sure of the duration--lived in the Boston area. He became a frequent visitor to Lulu's, hanging out at the bar and mostly complaining that he could find no work at Lulu's or anywhere else. He certainly could play well at the time, but he was a difficult man to deal with, a fact that may have resulted in a dwindling number of job opportunities. My brief observations of and encounters with Jo Jones revealed a cantankerous and bitter man who lit up only in the presence of women and children. He would revel in ostentatiously giving me the brush while burying my wife in complements.
One evening I asked him for an autograph for a young would-be drummer who had seen and been mesmerized by his work. He lit up and enthusiastically asked about the youngster. But soon, for some reason, he became wary and got it into his head that I was asking for the autograph for myself and did not want to ask for it on my own behalf. The simple request became a game during which he cajoled me into buying one of his albums (not really a burden for me) before he would sign anything.