The Boston Baritones
Two of the greatest baritone saxophonists in jazz history are natives: Boston’s Harry Carney (1910-1974) and Newton’s Serge Chaloff (1923-1957). Carney left early but often passed through. Chaloff left early, too, but heroin addiction hobbled his career, and he spent long periods back home.
Carney inspired all the baritones to follow. His massive sound, ranging from low growls to cello-like highs, anchored Duke Ellington’s saxophone section for 45 years, mostly alongside alto star and fellow Bostonian Johnny Hodges. Carney incarnated the baritone, and Duke thought so highly of his majestic tone that he had him represent the voice of God in Ellington’s first Sacred Concert (1966). An affable, even-tempered man, Carney in later years hopped off the band bus and traveled from gig to gig in his own car, usually accompanied by Ellington in the back seat.
Chaloff’s road was less easy, though his tribulations were largely self-inflicted. Widely credited with adapting altoist Charlie Parker’s bebop innovations to the more cumbersome bari, he achieved fame as a member of Woody Herman’s “Four Brothers” sax section (the others were Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Herbie Steward). Though he finally kicked his habit, Chaloff succumbed to cancer at 33. His final two albums as leader showed him continuing to develop. “Boston Blow-Up!” (1955) features an all-Hub lineup including trumpeter Herb Pomeroy and pianist Ray Santisi. His masterpiece, “Blue Serge” (1956), ranks among the finest horn-plus-rhythm albums of the ’50s and beyond.
A true Boston character, George Frazier (1911-1974) was a Southie native and Harvard grad who wound up his career as a revered Boston Globe columnist. His jazz-related exploits include penning the tongue-in-cheek lyrics to Count Basie’s 1941 “Harvard Blues” and in 1942 writing the first daily jazz column anywhere, “Sweet and Low-Down,” for the Boston Herald. Strongly opinionated, reputedly he was called “acid mouth” by his Down Beat editors. A classically stylish dresser, Frazier penned a liner note for “Miles Davis’ Greatest Hits” that spent seven paragraphs praising Davis’s fashion sense before concluding, “When not selecting additions to his wardrobe, Miles is a professional trumpet player. People who know about such things tell me he shows a lot of promise.”
Roxbury-born Nat Hentoff (born 1925), who shares Frazier’s June 10th birthday, launched his jazz-related career here as a broadcaster on WMEX. He was a Boston correspondent for Down Beat and haunted the city’s jazz clubs, especially the Savoy Cafe. He once sued Frazier for libel — which, as a fierce free-speech advocate, he later regretted. The above and more are delineated in “Boston Boy,” Hentoff’s memoir of growing up as a Jewish jazz lover in the Athens of America. Since then he’s written books about jazz and civil liberties, and innumerable liner notes and newspaper and magazine articles. At 90, his writing still appears regularly.
Jazz has been heard in Boston everywhere from neighborhood dives to ritzy clubs and Symphony Hall. But our most iconic venue is Wally’s, opened on January 1, 1947, by Joseph L. Walcott, the first African-American club owner in the city’s history. His liquor license, it’s said, was approved through the intervention of Mayor James Michael Curley, a frequent fare during Walcott’s cab-driving days. The club changed its name from Wally’s Paradise to Wally’s Cafe in 1960, and moved across Mass. Ave. in 1979. Walcott died in 1998 at age 101; the club, still family-owned, remains. Wally’s has always featured local talent, but local means something else when the academies are so near. Generations of players have cut their teeth at Wally’s jam sessions, and if you go there any night you’ll likely hear a future star.
Boston owes much of its ongoing jazz vitality to the New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music, which attract student musicians from around the globe. Founded in 1867, NEC established a popular-music division in 1942. Berklee’s predecessor, Schillinger House, was founded in 1945 by West End native Lawrence Berk to teach the mathematical musical methods of its namesake. Neither was jazz-focused at first. Both benefited greatly in the post-war era from the flood of students provided by the GI Bill.
Jazz arrived at Berklee during the ’50s, as Herb Pomeroy, Ray Santisi, nonpareil drummer Alan Dawson, and saxophonist Charlie Mariano joined the faculty. NEC took the plunge in 1967 when the renowned Renaissance man Gunther Schuller became president, and shortly thereafter established a jazz and improvisation program with his deputy, pianist Ran Blake. As the years passed, the schools developed a yin/yang dynamic: Berklee more business-oriented, NEC more artsy. Notable Berklee alumni and faculty include pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, vibraphonist Gary Burton, guitarist Pat Metheny, and bassist Esperanza Spalding. Among NEC’s alumni and faculty are drummer Bob Moses, clarinetist Don Byron, and pianists Fred Hersch and Jason Moran.
Drummers Roy Haynes and Tony Williams; pianists Jaki Byard and Chick Corea; big bands from the swing era’s Sabby Lewis to today’s Aardvark Jazz and Either/Orchestra; DJs from Ray Smith to Eric Jackson; impresarios from George Wein (Newport Jazz Festival) to Elma Lewis (Playhouse in the Park Concert Series); and “the jazz priest,” Father Norman James O’Connor — all helped to swing Boston a durable place on the map.
Kevin Lowenthal can be reached at email@example.com.