Boston's Complex and Often Overlooked Jazz History

Exhibit Curated by Anna Smith

Jazz is typically thought of as a free and radical form of music, characterized by its atypical rhythms, heavy use of improvisation, and creative instrumentation. A history of jazz music would be incomplete without mention of its diverse influences, as much of early jazz is rooted in African American folk traditions. Early jazz musicians—especially black jazz musicians—channeled their hardships into art while dealing with the oppressive social structure of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Incidentally, Boston is often left out of jazz history discussions, while cities like New Orleans, Chicago, New York, and Kansas City are featured prominently. To say that Boston didn’t impact the genre at all is simply incorrect, as the area is known for its contributions to the development of jazz academia, through institutions like Berklee College and the Lenox School of Music. That being said, it can be argued that these institutions create a hierarchy that prioritizes musicians who can afford higher education over lower class musicians with less formal training. The goal of this project is to trace the, at times, problematic history of Boston’s complex relationship jazz and examine the role that the city’s history of racism and prejudice plays in jazz's development.

A History of Jazz in Boston

Setting the Stage: 1935-1950

In the late 1930s, just after the end of the Great Depression, Boston’s nightlife was flourishing. There was a revolving door of small clubs where jazz ensembles could be found all nights of the week, while larger dance halls catered to audiences interested in moving as well as listening. During this time period, local promoter Charlie Shribman cornered the New England jazz market, regularly booking notable names like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Artie Shaw. In addition, the Boston Conservatory drew in its fair share of musicians who were interested in formal music studies (1). 

Boston’s jazz culture at this time period prominently featured big bands of the swing era. The city’s dance scene was centered in an area sometimes referred to as the “Ballroom District,” located on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Huntington Avenue, near where Symphony Hall still stands today. Venues like Symphony Hall, the Roseland-State Ballroom, the Raymor, and the Play-Mor were particularly popular, and drew large crowds. Though the makings of a bustling dancing scene were all there, Boston still had very strict entertainment laws and, in some venues, outlawed particularly energetic dances such as the jitterbug (2). These regulations, known as blue laws, are an example of Boston’s latent Puritanism which has historically made it difficult for countercultural movements, especially involving marginalized groups, to really take root in the city. Jazz music and the types of dancing that went along with it were generally associated with black culture, and this was an obstacle in a time when segregation was still legal.

Byproducts of this segregation can be seen in the work of Cy and Charlie Shribman, who were kingpins of the big band scene in Boston as promoters and owners of the Roseland-State Ballroom.  This space saw many influential artists, such as Artie Shaw, whose orchestra performed there twice a week for months after the 1937 opening. These performances were recorded and broadcast throughout New England, contributing to the rise of this venue (3). Interestingly, Malcolm X (back when we was known as Malcolm Little) worked the shoeshine stand in this venue for a period of time. He reflected on the club being lively and exciting, but also noted that the space was not yet integrated. Jim Crow laws shaped the landscape of Boston, and the ballroom would alternate nights between white audiences and black audiences. The Shribmans were worried about how integrating audiences would impact their business, which, though distressing, was not an uncommon sentiment during this time period (4). An age-old challenge in the jazz world was that, while there were many phenomenal black jazz musicians, the country was replete with racism and prejudice. Even promoters and owners who didn’t share these prejudices made decisions that favored the white majority at the expense of talented black musicians. 

Much of the reason that race was such an issue with Boston’s jazz scene was institutional: at the time, the local government was actually structured to facilitate this separation. The American Federation of Music was divided into two local factions: Local 9 which supported white people, and Local 535 which supported black people. Not everyone agreed with this division, but it was law, so the general population felt powerless to change it. Of this structure, prolific Boston jazz writer Nat Hentoff once said,

“It’s still beyond my limited understanding why Boston—or any other city, for that matter, requires two locals—one for whites, the other for Negroes. Music is supposed to be the most democratic of the arts: what excuse, then, is there for segregation in that realm” (5).

An issue present in jazz history long before and long after after this time period was that spaces that were considered “black” were associated with raucous behavior and crime. “White” spaces, on the other hand, were considered to be more respectable places of listening and appreciating music (6). Obviously, these distinctions are false and inherently problematic, but they unfortunately played a significant role in shaping Boston’s nightlife.

Smaller clubs existed alongside the big band scene of Boston, and brought in a variety of bands and artists. Early on, clubs like the Theatrical Club, Club Congo, and the Southland Club (which is now the Charles Playhouse) were popular hotspots, but venues were constantly closing, changing, and being bought by new owners. Prejudice was also still very much an issue with the Boston jazz scene, but amidst all of the racial tension, the Savoy Café was considered to be the most racially integrated club in Boston. As mentioned previously, integration tended to raise the eyebrows of the authorities, and the Savoy got a lot of attention from the police as a result (7). Despite this, from its founding in 1935, the venue featured greats such as Sabby Lewis and Frankie Newton. Despite racial issues, a relocation, and an almost year long closure, the Savoy Café became one of the city’s most influential jazz venues (8).  

Even in venues that supported integration, there was a concerning trend—all club owners and most commercially successful jazz figures (with the exception of musicians) were white. Jazz was a traditionally African-American genre, but the people profiting from its success, in Boston and across the country, were largely white, middle-class men. In 1947, Joseph L. Walcott challenged this norm when he, a black man from Barbados, opened Wally’s Paradise just down the street from the Savoy. Interestingly, part of the reason that Walcott was successful in opening that club was because James Michael Curley, mayor of Boston at the time, felt that aiding this effort would help him gain support from the black community (9). Though this represents yet another incident where the government abused racial issues for its own gain, Wally’s Paradise was undeniably a huge achievement for the black Boston jazz scene. 

Various flyers for performances at venues across Boston.

Boston jazz journalist Nat Hentoff with clarinetist
Edmond Hall at the Savoy in 1948.

Storyville, founded by George Wein in 1950.

The first Newport Jazz Festival, July 17, 1954.

Bassist Percy Heath with a student at the Lenox School of Music, 1959.

Commodification and Academia: 1950-1970

In 1950, Bostonian George Wein opened a club called Storyville in Copley Square. After a few relocations, the venue settled in the Copley Square Hotel for the remainder of its existence. Due to various factors, location being a significant one, the spot drew a mainly white crowd. Wein discussed this issue, stating that “Once we caught on, our audience was mostly made up of professors from the different local colleges. We didn’t draw many kids because they didn’t drink and most were under 21, the legal age limit then…The club attracted blacks when I had certain artists booked, but for the most part the audience was white and middle class” (10). This racial disparity shows that Boston’s prejudices were still strong, and that their relationship with jazz was one fraught with racism and inequality.

In 1954, George Wein continued his commercial endeavors and founded the Newport Jazz Festival. This event, which still continues annually today, helped to push jazz into the cultural mainstream and inspired a multitude of other jazz festivals to be instated (11). Despite this event’s commercial success and historic significance, there were still a number of issues in the early days, especially when it came to fairly compensating musicians (particularly black musicians). Charles Mingus, prolific bassist and bandleader, was asked to play the festival in 1960. Wein offered Mingus and his band a mere $700 for the gig, though, and Mingus refused to go on stage for anything less than $5,000. Wein consequently refused the negotiation, and Mingus went on to form an anti-festival nearby: the Newport Rebel Festival (12). Musicians, especially black musicians, were often under compensated for their work. Though it’s very well known that black musicians are the crux of jazz as a genre, the people who profited from the commercialization of this music were white men. This unfortunate reality demonstrates the paradox of all art, which is especially ironic when considering the expressive, improvisational spirit of jazz: in order for any art form to take off, it must be commercially successful. 

While a number of venues had cashed in on the jazz trend at this point in Boston’s history, the city was on the cusp of an interesting new phenomenon: uniting jazz and academia. In 1957, the first ever dedicated jazz curriculum was started at the Lenox School of Music in Western Massachusetts. This summer program lasted only three years, from 1957 to 1960, but during its tenure, it was hailed as a seminal landmark in the development of jazz education, and also produced a number of influential musicians. Pioneered by historian Marshall Stearns, who launched some of the first ever jazz history classes, this program represented a drastic shift in the way that musicians cut their teeth in the jazz world. (13) Rather than earning reputations in small venues and developing skills by playing with veteran jazz musicians in jam sessions, musicians could now pay a premium to develop their skills. While this obviously helped to legitimize jazz as a genre and further its commercial success, the already drastic racial and economic hierarchies that existed in the jazz world suddenly became more pronounced.  

Taking a brief detour to reflect back to promoter Charlie Shribman, the jazz mogul was still active and had spread to other venues in New England. One thing that had stayed the same since his early career, though, was the fact that racism was a constant issue in the jazz industry. In the later days of his career, Shribman had booked a September 1960 dance show in Taunton, Rhode Island, but the town’s mayor forbade the show from taking place because he didn’t “want any colored in Taunton or any colored dancers at the ballroom” (14). Shribman cancelled the show date, but retired from the music industry shortly after. Commercial success was contingent on a consistent audience, so decisions that favored the (white) majority trumped less favorable moves that allowed talented musicians to share their artistry. This lingering racism is important to consider in a discussion about Boston’s commodification of the genre, because it shows that those profiting from this genre were still mostly white.

While racism continued to fracture the industry, the academic jazz movement picked up steam.  In the mid-1960s, Berklee College of Music followed in Lenox’s footsteps and began offering undergraduate degrees in jazz studies (15). The college’s interest in jazz had begun a few years prior, when they began broadcasting “Jazz in the Classroom” recordings over national radio. In 1958, the school put on a “Jazz Internationale” concert to showcase students from other countries, a population which had been growing (16). This idea that the school was putting on a jazz concert to showcase non-American students rather than African-American students was a bit of an anomaly, as jazz is fundamentally an African-American folk music. However, though this may feel like a move that co-opts jazz for a whiter, more “serious” academic audience, there is something to be said for the fact that Berklee was working to further the genre at all. Even by the 60s, jazz had declined in popularity and was no longer a part of mainstream culture like it once was. Berklee’s dedication to giving the genre a place in the academic sphere shows an effort to keep the genre alive. Some have argued that, despite the fact that inaccessibility of higher education for lower classes, “In many ways, this new development was made possible by the gradual acceptance and development of African American intellectual perspectives: The drive to teach jazz on its own terms was often connected to the vision of a more racially inclusive academy” (17).

Avant-Garde, Fusion, and Jazz's Decline: 1970-today

By 1970, jazz everywhere was in decline. Most of the significant venues of the previous decades had closed or were on the verge of closing, as a lack of business led to financial issues. It was a bleak time for jazz everywhere, but the genre wasn’t gone, exactly, it had just shifted stylistically or fused with other, more popular genres such as rock and R&B. Boston DJ Eric Jackson explained,

“It wasn’t just in jazz. In general, musicians were dealing with more spiritual ideas. There was a connection between the idea of freedom, and of freedom in the music. They were moving away from mainstream structures” (18).

The 70s were, just as past decades had been, a complicated time for race relations in Boston. In 1974, the Boston School System was federally ordered to begin busing students to desegregate schools, which backfired dramatically, resulting in years of protest and violence (19).

Despite continuing racial tensions and jazz’s general lack of popularity, Boston was still making efforts to support jazz through newer deviations of the style, such as avant-garde and fusion (a term for the combination of jazz and another genre of popular music). One of Boston’s biggest contributors to the fusion genre was pianist Chick Corea. Born in Boston, Corea was inspired by fusion groups like the Mahavishnu Orchestra to lean towards the avant-garde with an emphasis on free improvisation. He found success with his 1972 group Return to Forever, who were known for their dramatic, high-volume compositions and their use of synthesizers (20). In 1973, fusion guitarist Pat Metheny began his tenure at Berklee University, contributing to the cause of keeping jazz alive (21). 

Jumping forward to the present, one of the only remaining venues from the early days is Wally’s Paradise (now known as Wally’s Café). Walcott died in 1998 at the age of 101, but his family still keeps the venue going (22). When considering all of the white club owners who profited off of jazz throughout history, it’s amazing to consider that the only early venue that’s still in business is one that was founded by a black man during a time of institutionalized segregation. Another interesting aspect of this venue is that today, most of the performances at Wally’s are put on by Boston music students. This is another example of how, though there are issues with the jazz academia and exclusivity, the presence of jazz in the educational world has actually allowed the genre to live on to the present. 

Today, though Boston’s jazz scene is far from what it once was, the city still fosters the genre through various institutions, bands, and programs. Berklee College is still flourishing, and offers a number of jazz related programs. The Berklee Global Jazz Institute, for example, teaches students the technical skills behind playing jazz, as well as providing them with tools to use their talents for the betterment of society (23). The city hosts an annual Jazz Week where hundreds of musicians showcase their work throughout Boston. Mark Harvey, MIT professor and musician, helps to organize this event each year. Additionally, he founded the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra 1973 and continues to lead the group (24). Jazz concerts, by groups like the Aardvark Orchestra as well as those put on by schools like Berklee, can be found frequently in the city, showing that there are still many musicians dedicated to perpetuating the spirit of jazz.

No matter which city is in question, the history of jazz is tumultuous, to say the least. The genre’s progression has been deeply intertwined with racial struggles, and Boston is no exception to this rule. That being said, art is something that has the power to reduce these barriers, which can be seen through the history of jazz. Of this phenomenon, Richard Vacca writes,

“At its best, jazz exemplified how common interest and purpose could weaken social prohibitions . . . Jazz wasn’t the answer, but it was an answer” (25).

Chick Corea with band Return to Forever, 1976.

Wally's Jazz Cafe.

If you’re still interested in learning more or experiencing the Boston jazz scene firsthand, here are some links to jazz clubs and events throughout the city:

Wally’s Cafe: http://wallyscafe.com/index.html

Darryl’s Corner Bar and Kitchen: https://dcbkboston.com 

Sculler’s Jazz Club: https://scullersjazz.com

Beehive Restaurant: https://www.beehiveboston.com/calendar/ 

Jazz Week Calendar: https://jazzboston.org/jazz-calendar/


Footnotes:

1. Richard Vacca, The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937-1962 (Belmont: Troy Street Publishing, 2012), 17.

2. Vacca, 30.

3. Karl Ackerman, “Culture Clubs: A History Of The U.S. Jazz Clubs, Part III: Kansas City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles & Beyond,” All About Jazz, published January 6, 2018, https://www.allaboutjazz.com/culture-clubs-a-history-of-the-us-jazz-clubs-part-iii-kansas-city-philadelphia-los-angeles-and-beyond-by-karl-ackermann.php?page=1.

4. Vacca, 47.

5. Vacca, 140-41.

6. Kelsey Klotz, “The Place of Race in Jazz Discourse: Storyville, Boston,” Ethnomusicology Review, published March 10, 2016, https://www.ethnomusicologyreview.ucla.edu/content/place-race-jazz-discourse-storyville-boston.

7. Ackerman.

8. Vacca, 106.

9. Vacca, 149.

10. Klotz.

11. Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddens, Jazz Essential Listening (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2019), 331.

12. Mark Laver, "Rebels and Volkswagens: Charles Mingus and the Commodification of Dissent,” Black Music Research Journal 34, no. 2 (2014): 201-27, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/blacmusiresej.34.2.0201#metadata_info_tab_contents.

13. Alex W. Rodriguez, “A Brief History of Jazz Education, Pt. 1,” A Blog Supreme, NPR, published November 12, 2012, https://www.npr.org/sections/ablogsupreme/2012/10/26/163741653/a-brief-history-of-jazz-education-pt-1.

14. Vacca, 53.

15. DeVeaux and Giddens, 331.

16. Vacca, 122.

17. Alex W. Rodriguez, “A Brief History of Jazz Education, Pt. 2,” A Blog Supreme, NPR, published January 8, 2013, https://www.npr.org/sections/ablogsupreme/2013/01/08/168893316/a-brief-history-of-jazz-education-pt-2.

18. James Sullivan, “Box set illuminates 1970s experimental jazz in Boston,” Boston Globe, published January 26, 2019, https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/music/2016/01/26/box-set-illuminates-experimental-jazz-boston/IM6hBEFXu29XiuZOmI8pHO/story.html.

19. Silvia Dominguez, “Race Relations and Immigration in Boston,” Footnotes:  A Publication of the American Psychological Association, accessed December 9, 2019, https://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/savvy/footnotes/julyaugust08/race_rel.html.

20. Vacca, 310-11.

21. Mark Small, “Pat Metheny: No Boundaries,” Berklee Today, accessed December 9, 2019, https://www.berklee.edu/bt/161/coverstory.html.

22. Ackerman. 

23. “Berklee Global Jazz Institute,” Berklee, Accessed December 9, 2019, https://www.berklee.edu/focused/global-jazz.

24. Mark Harvey and Lisa Mullins, “The State of Jazz in Boston Today,” published March 28, 2017, In All Things Considered, produced by WBUR, podcast, MP3 audio, https://www.wbur.org/artery/2017/03/28/mark-harvey-boston-jazz-scene.

25. Vacca, 290.

References:

Ackerman, Karl. “Culture Clubs: A History Of The U.S. Jazz Clubs, Part III: Kansas City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles & Beyond.” All About Jazz. Published January 6, 2018. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/culture-clubs-a-history-of-the-us-jazz-clubs-part-iii-kansas-city-philadelphia-los-angeles-and-beyond-by-karl-ackermann.php?page=1.

“Berklee Global Jazz Institute,” Berklee. Accessed December 9, 2019. https://www.berklee.edu/focused/global-jazz.

DeVeaux, Scott and Gary Giddens. Jazz Essential Listening. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2019.

Dominguez, Silvia. “Race Relations and Immigration in Boston.” Footnotes:  A Publication of the American Psychological Association. Accessed December 9, 2019. https://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/savvy/footnotes/julyaugust08/race_rel.html.

Harvey, Mark and Lisa Mullins. “The State of Jazz in Boston Today.” Produced by WBUR. All Things Considered. Published March 28, 2017. podcast, MP3 audio. https://www.wbur.org/artery/2017/03/28/mark-harvey-boston-jazz-scene

Klotz, Kelsey. “The Place of Race in Jazz Discourse: Storyville, Boston.” Ethnomusicology Review, March 10, 2016. https://www.ethnomusicologyreview.ucla.edu/content/place-race-jazz-discourse-storyville-boston.

Laver, Mark. "Rebels and Volkswagens: Charles Mingus and the Commodification of Dissent." Black Music Research Journal 34, no. 2 (2014): 201-27.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/blacmusiresej.34.2.0201#metadata_info_tab_contents.

Rodriguez, Alex W. “A Brief History of Jazz Education, Pt. 1.” A Blog Supreme. NPR, Published November 12, 2012. https://www.npr.org/sections/ablogsupreme/2012/10/26/163741653/a-brief-history-of-jazz-education-pt-1.

Rodriguez, Alex W. “A Brief History of Jazz Education, Pt. 2.” A Blog Supreme. NPR, Published January 8, 2013. https://www.npr.org/sections/ablogsupreme/2013/01/08/168893316/a-brief-history-of-jazz-education-pt-2.

Small, Mark. “Pat Metheny: No Boundaries.” Berklee Today. accessed December 9, 2019. https://www.berklee.edu/bt/161/coverstory.html.

Sullivan, James. “Box set illuminates 1970s experimental jazz in Boston.” Boston Globe. Published January 26, 2019. https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/music/2016/01/26/box-set-illuminates-experimental-jazz-boston/IM6hBEFXu29XiuZOmI8pHO/story.html.