South End

An Evening with Harold Layne
By Drake Lucas

Layne plays the beat for Zoot Sims (saxophonist) with Billy Hill on bass and Jimmy Neal on piano. (circa 1962) Courtesy of Harold Layne.

Harold Layne plays the drums like they are a game, and not his job. He smiles, relaxed. His quick, steady hands tap out a beat or bang out a solo. His face breaks into a grin, as if every note is new, even though he has been playing jazz in Boston for 60 years.

“Long enough to be good and I’m not,” he jokes, a modest remark from someone honored and respected in Boston’s jazz tradition.

He was a postal worker by day for many years, but a jazz musician by night. He continues to play about two times a week around town and doesn’t show any signs of stopping. “I’m blessed to be still playing,” he said.

“He’s probably the best drummer of his age in the world,” says pianist Rusty Scott. “I play with many good drummers, but I always miss Layne [if someone else sits in].”

Layne, 77, still remembers the day he got to carry legendary Gene Krupa’s drums for him. He recalls being able to play Krupa’s solo from “Sing, Sing, Sing” at age 14, note for note.

Even before that, Layne would follow parades for miles just to watch the drums. Until his sisters bought him his first drum set, he banged on cardboard boxes. It was his brother who got him into jazz, taking him to the clubs, including those in the South End where he would later play.

Tonight he’s playing at the Wonder Bar in Allston. It’s quiet on a Wednesday except for a couple of tables of chattering college students. On a set break, he shows me his photo album, proudly pointing to a signed photo with Elvin Jones and other jazz greats he has known: Ben Webster, Zoot Sims, Sonny Stitt…

After all these years, Layne still loves playing. Click the picture to hear him play.

He tells me about the time he was asked to play with Sammy Davis, Jr., another Boston native. “They called me and said to me, ‘Do you want to do a charity concert with Sammy Davis, Jr.?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m already there.’”

The average person likes a beat, Layne explains. “They want a rhythm, that’s what they want.”

He remembers “way back” when Ellington was playing something that was over the audiences’ heads. People started to leave. “All of a sudden, he started playing a beat and everybody came back.” Paul Gonzales played 27 choruses that night.

People in the crowd got all worked up; one lady even got up on stage and started dancing. “Probably everyone wanted to,” he admits. Ellington just ignored the management when they wanted the band to stop “Why they came back – that beat,” says Layne.

He says that jazz today is treated poorly. “Jazz has suffered through the years,” he said. “It’s great music, but people don’t actually listen to it now.” He remembers the Swing Era of the 1930s and ‘40s when people were more attentive to the music.

Trying to find clubs in Boston where the music is the focus is difficult. The music is often played in the corner, as it was this night at the Wonder Bar. The band was largely ignored by the young clientele; people didn’t even bother to clap between songs. And at one point, I was the only person in the club.

Not that it kept the band from playing or having fun. Keala Kaumeheiwa played bass and Layne laughed as they traded solos, turning to give Allen a challenging look when he played an especially good return. Scott led the melody at the piano.

“Jazz is still here,” Layne assured me. “It will never leave. But it won’t come back like it was with all the people I worked with.”

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

Photo Gallery

Pictures from Layne's life

Thriving jazz scene

map of South End’s popular jazz spots

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