South End

Boston’s Place in Jazz History
By Drake Lucas

Sonny Stitt on sax, Harold Layne on drums and Sir Charles Thompson on piano at Connelly’s Jazz Club on Tremont Street. (circa 1962) Courtesy of Harold Layne.

Boston is not the first place that comes to mind when people think of jazz. One might think of New Orleans or Chicago or New York. But Beantown?

“If you talk to any old-time jazz musician, they recognize that Boston was a great jazz place,” says 87-year-old Charles Walker. He joined his first band, the Dixie Black Birds, in 1935 and continued to frequent the jazz clubs in the South End as a tenor sax player. “A lot of musicians came out of Boston.”

Ask any Boston jazz musician and they can name not just the clubs but the locals who made the scene big: Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and Paul Gonsalves, who all went on the play with Duke Ellington; Sonny Stitt; Alan Dawson; and bandleader Sabby Lewis, among others.

But what, specifically, was the Boston sound? Boston played everything and that’s part of the problem in placing Boston within a specific jazz tradition.

“Boston was a great meeting place,” said Thomas O’Connor, Boston historian and professor at Boston College. “But I don’t think Boston promoted a unique style.” As the style of jazz changed, Boston musicians excelled at the new forms, from traditional jazz to swing to bop to avante garde.

Consequently, said Brent Banulis, president of the New England Jazz Alliance, Boston’s story is not as easy to tell as, say, New Orleans and Dixieland jazz. “In New England, every style was played,” he said. “If you think of other cities, you can stereotype the music. But every style was mastered here.”

Banulis also pointed out that Boston’s radio signal did not travel far outside the area. The signal only reached the greater Boston area, unlike Philadelphia, Chicago and New York where the radio reached a wider audience.

The loss of great jazz journalists to New York was another factor, he said. In the 1960s, many jazz players left for New York and many writers left with them, including Nat Hentoff and Ray Barron. “This exodus hurt the telling of the story,” he said.

“New York is the place for jazz, always has been and always will be,” said Rusty Scott, piano player, while on a set break at the Wonder Bar in Allston. “But Boston is close enough to New York that we get a lot of spillover.” Jazz musicians on their way to New York or playing in the city frequently pass through Boston.

“The Boston/New York jazz pipeline,” said Banulis, “was very significant in jazz history.”

Next: The Disappearance of Boston Jazz

More Stories

South End Home
Boston’s Place in Jazz History
The Disappearance of Boston Jazz
An Evening with Harold Layne

More about South End Jazz

National England Jazz Alliance
Wally’s Jazz Café
Bob the Chef’s Restaurant and Jazz Café

Thriving jazz scene

map of South End’s popular jazz spots


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