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‘Taking a Boston’ once meant something in jazz

Pulling on a thread in Beantown music culture.

When Duke Ellington played in Boston's Franklin Park on July 24, 1969, his musicians surely took some Bostons, even if they didn't call them that anymore.
When Duke Ellington played in Boston's Franklin Park on July 24, 1969, his musicians surely took some Bostons, even if they didn't call them that anymore.Jeff Albertson

William “Cat” Anderson, who played trumpet with Duke Ellington, told Ellington biographer Stanley Dance that musicians at the South Carolina orphanage where he was raised in the 1930s “were setting riffs and each taking a ‘Boston,’ as they called solos back then.” Jimmy Rushing, best known for his work with Count Basie, told jazz writer Fred Binkley that in the late 1920s “when a guy took a solo,” it was called “a Boston.”

But no one says that anymore. What happened to this link between Beantown and jazz?

The connection between the two began, oddly enough, with the Boston waltz, a slower version of its German ancestor — “performed with deliberation” and “syncopation,” according to “Social Dancing of Today,” a 1914 compendium. The piano accompaniment featured the left hand in the bass on the first and third beats, with the right hand adding a chord on the second and fourth. It came to be called “playing a Boston,” and “take a Boston” meant soloing against it.

When “playing a Boston” migrated to jazz, “taking a Boston” came with it, with the implication that the solo would be hot. Rex Stewart, another Ellington trumpeter, said that Benny Carter, an alto sax who more than one jazz critic said couldn’t play the blues, had “never baked beans for us, not real Boston style.” James P. Johnson walked into a New York restaurant one night in the 1920s, spotted a trombonist and trumpeter he knew, and said to Willie “The Lion” Smith: “These are the bimbos that I told you I heard out in the Windy City, and you can bet a man that they can get off on them horns and blow a ‘Boston’ that will swing you into bad health.”

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You had to earn the right to take a Boston. When Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton first joined Ellington’s orchestra, Duke didn’t let him solo even though the trombonist played his parts capably. Finally, saxophonist Otto Hardwick spoke up on Nanton’s behalf: “For Christ’s sake,” he said to Ellington. “How long are you gonna let this man sit here without taking a Boston?”

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Over time, “taking a Boston” died out, perhaps because “playing a Boston” acquired a bad connotation. When Thelonious Monk appeared on the scene in the early 1940s, fellow pianist Herbie Nichols gave one of his albums a negative review, accusing him of just playing a Boston when he should have been more creative.

Decades later, jazz record producer Michael Cuscuna came across the review and asked an old-time musician, Worcester native Jaki Byard, what the phrase meant. Byard tried to explain it in words but eventually, as Cuscuna walked past his piano, Byard launched into the left-hand/right-hand pattern and yelled “This is a Boston!”

Con Chapman is the author of “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges,” from Oxford University Press.