Friday, May 24, 2013

Dial in the Birdie

By Chet Williamson

Charlie Parker and Ross Russell

He once owned Dial Records, a jazz label that documented some of Charlie Parker’s most important sides. So, how is it that at the label’s height, he walked away from the business, only to purchase a golf course in Leicester, MA?

He is Ross Russell, one of the most respected, yet reviled names in jazz history. In his career, he not only recorded Parker, but later became his biographer. He is the author of Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker. His association with the legendary saxophonist gathers Russell both praise and condemnation.

Russell’s career in the music business and his life as a writer is well documented. His life in golf is not.  

From 1956-’59, he owned and operated the Leicester Country Club, one of the oldest golf courses in the state of Massachusetts and lived at 12 Boynton Street in Worcester. Other than that, very little is known about Russell’s time spent here.

The golf course had many owners in its long history. The most recent is Chuck Bois, who in addition to managing the day-to-day operations is trying collect memorabilia to adorn the clubhouse and banquet facility walls. He says that previous owners “took everything.”  

Speaking with town historians and librarians, they say that the Russell name is well-known in Leicester. Russell Manufacturing made game cards in town for decades and there are Russells scattered throughout the area. None, however, appear to be connected with Ross Russell.

So how and why did he come to Leicester? This is what we do know: The March 9, 1956 issue of the Leicester Weekly News reported the purchase of the golf course. The links were then called Mount Pleasant Country Club. It was sold by a “group of private owners to Ross Russell of New York City, and a former golf professional in California. Mr. Russell said he would operate the club on a semi-public basis rather than its form status as a private club. Season membership and semi-public pay plan will be introduced he said.”

The article also reported that he was a former golf professional at Westwood Hills Country Club, Beverly Hills, California and a native of the state [Glendale] who was a graduate of UCLA.

Other than that, nothing is written about Russell’s past, especially his jazz life. Most of the piece is about the history of the course, which was founded in 1896. The assessed value of the property in 1955, which included a clubhouse, sheds, and nearly 100 acres, was less than $15,000.

According to Edward M. Komara, author of The Dial Recordings of Charlie Parker; a discography, Russell “moved to Massachusetts and took up two of his previous professions, golf and writing.”

Tempo Music Shop  
Before getting into these vocations in further detail, a statement about Dial Records is in order. In 1946, after running the Tempo Music Shop, a record store in Hollywood, Russell founded the label. In addition to recording Parker, whom it is said the label was started for, Russell also recorded a who’s who of legendary bebop musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and Wardell Gray.

Wardell Gray
Komara reported that by 1948, Russell was no longer interested in recording jazz, but released reissued material. “In later years, Russell regretted not scheduling additional jazz sessions, admitting that he had opportunities to record Thelonious Monk and the Modern Jazz Quartet.

“He continued his jazz reissues along with the new releases in contemporary classical music and calypso. Despite these recording sessions and acquisitions in jazz, classical, and folk, Dial closed in 1954.

“Russell sold his jazz sessions to the firm Concert Hall, sending them the master tapes, master pressing lists and log sheets on June 3, 1954. Less than a year later, on March 12, 1955, Dial’s leading artist Charlie Parker died in New York,” Komara said.

By 1955, Russell was also on the east coast. His forays into writing and golf were taking much of his time. According to Komara, before purchasing Leicester Country Club, Russell operated the Revere Golf Range in Revere, MA.

Apparently, Russell’s time spent in Leicester was in raising a family (he married five times and had four children), operating the course, and writing. Komara said that before selling LCC and returning to California, Russell worked on The Sound, “a novel depicting jazz musicians and hipsters in the 1940s. Also, Russell was contacted by Grove Press in 1957 for a biography of Charlie Parker, but no results at the time.”

Komara added that, after the publication of The Sound in 1960, Russell continued to write about jazz and eventually g0t busy working on the Parker biography.
A quick word on Russell’s controversial reputation in jazz: It dates back to Dial. The accounts are well documented. Russell is essentially demonized for insisting on recording Parker while he was dope-sick. The other is his graphic look at Bird’s addiction, which Russell is accused of indulging readers in within the biography.

Ross Russell

Regardless of what you think of the man, his words and/or actions, it is fascinating to think that just one year after Charlie Parker’s death, one of his biographers was walking the bucolic greens of Mt. Pleasant at Leicester Country Club, contemplating the lives of great jazz musicians.

Leicester Country Club today

*Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Check out my features on Worcester songwriters at:  Thank you.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Sherwood’s Auburn Forest

By Chet Williamson

In Hollywood, he was a famous. He was a well-known musician, bandleader, arranger, radio host, singer, actor, and author of the standard, “My Secret Love.”

So how is it that Bobby Sherwood died in obscurity in Auburn, Massachusetts?

Unraveling this riddle revealed a sad ending yet life-affirming portrait of a great American artist.  

Sherwood was born on May 30, 1914, in IndianapolisIN. His life and times are well represented online. You can find biographies, discographies, and more about his extraordinary career at a variety of sites. As for his time spent in New England, not much is written.

However, Thomas J. Hynes of the Worcester Telegram & Evening Gazette wrote as complete an obituary as one could ask for, especially given the time and space allotted.

Dateline: Auburn, MA, January, 23, 1981. He opened his piece by saying, “Robert J. Sherwood, Jr., 66, internationally known in show business as Bobby Sherwood, died yesterday at his home, 26 Pollier Way, after a long illness. He had been under treatment for cancer.”

26 Polliver Way, Auburn, MA 

Therein lies the local connection. For a few years before his death, Sherwood had been undergoing tests and receiving chemotherapy treatments at what is now the Dana-Faber Cancer Institute in Boston.

According to Hynes, Sherwood came to the Worcester area to stay at the Rev. Ralph A. DiOrio’s healing ministry retreat in Leicester. At the same time, Sherwood and his wife, Vivian (Coleman) searched for a place to live. The couple eventually purchased a home at 26 Pollier Way, Auburn. Sherwood was married five times in his life. He and Coleman tied the knot in November 1979 in Henderson, Nevada.
Rev. Ralph DiOrio preaching 

Sherwood first met DiOrio in the winter of 1979. The Worcester priest had been conducting “charismatic services” on the West Coast. It was reported to be the weakest point in Sherwood’s illness. According his son Michael, it was Vivian who talked the entertainer into seeing the faith healer.

Without airing dirty laundry, let’s just say the family did not consider Ms. Coleman a Sherwood.

Like his dad, Michael Sherwood is a talented musician. He is based in Las Vegas. When asked about his father’s life in Auburn, he said, “Truth be told, there's not that much my mother, brother, or myself knew about his life there. He had split with my mom in ‘78 and fell back in with a woman from his past named Vivian.

“She was a nightmare. That's putting it lightly. [She was] very hostile toward the family who loved him. He was sick at the time and found himself unable to truly communicate with us toward the end of his life. None of us even know if he was buried, cremated, or otherwise. If there's a grave I sure don't know about it.”

During his stay in the Worcester area, Bobby Sherwood continued to work on his music. In August 1980 he was interviewed by the Worcester Telegram“Everything in my life is music,” he said. “I’ve got a big band book. It’s on the West Coast. [It] fills a Navy footlocker, it’s that much music, 200 charts for 15 men. That’s a lot of paper.” 

Sherwood was no stranger to New England. In his big band glory days, he played at the Worcester Memorial Auditorium, Lincoln Park on Lake Quinsigamond, and the Lyonhurst in Marlboro. He led crackerjack groups that featured such jazz heavyweights as Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Serge Chaloff.

Hynes noted that Sherwood had already been undergoing treatment for cancer at the time of the interview. “Despite his affliction, he said, ‘I’ll work a deal. I’m an entertainer and I’ll get that big band of mine, Bobby Sherwood and His Orchestra, and on a Monday night,’ pausing to laugh and put out a cigarette, he continued, “we’ll come in to Worcester and play the El Morocco. And I’ll tear that room apart.”

For local fans, we can only imagine what might have been. At the time of Sherwood’s death, Hynes said the musician was preparing to write a column on big bands for the Worcester Telegram and the Evening Gazette. In 1980, one of the editors at the T&G was Ken Botty, who was a huge jazz fan. 

Hynes also reported that the entertainer was working on an album featuring big band material and that a Boston radio station was “interested in having him do a show for syndication.”

According to music writer Bruce Eder, Sherwood’s last recording credited to him was Bobby Sherwood -- One Man Band on the Coral label, released in 1954. Eder also noted that, “by that time acting was taking up an ever-increasing part of his work, including a starring role (as Ned Galvin) in Columbia Pictures’ screen version of Pal Joey (1957). He spent much of the remainder of his career working as a radio deejay.”

Sherwood spoke of his role in Pal Joey in his T&G interview pointing out that he was cast as Frank Sinatra’s friend. “Remember? I was the band leader, and Kim Novak was my girl – until Frank showed up, and then Rita Hayworth showed up.” Sherwood also mentioned that he released an album featuring the music played in the film. In 1958, Bobby Sherwood & His Orchestra released the Pal Joey album on Jubilee label.

One of the more stunning revelations written in his obit is the fact that for several years Sherwood had been working on his autobiography called, The Days of Wine and Buses.

The book remains unpublished. It is in the hands of his son, Michael, who says, "He never published it, but I have the manuscript. I have all of what exists. I even went into Capitol Studios in LA and recorded some of the pieces that were never recorded, as well as remakes of his hits, Sherwood's Forest," and "Elks' Parade."

When Sherwood died a service was held for him at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Worcester. He was cremated at Rural Cemetery. Learning that his father was cremated, Michael said, “I should tell you that my dad always told me he didn't want to be cremated, because -- and I quote – ‘Hey, what if you spill me on the carpet? Who the hell wants to spend eternity in a Hoover bag?’

Rural Cemetery and Crematory, Worcester
“He was a very funny man and I miss him every day. When I pay my respects I go to his star on Hollywood Boulevard. It was a very sad end to a rich and amazing family life.”

In a fitting gesture to such a musician, memorial contributions may be made to the Robert J. Sherwood Fund at Berklee College of Music. The fund is for musical scholarships for outstanding students at the college.


Note: “My Secret Love,” was written by Sherwood and Mitchell Parrish. It was copywritten on April 1, 1943, and first put into print by Worcester publisher Jack Robbins.  

Other local connections – jazz trumpeter Carl Saunders’ role model was the late great Worcester horn man Don Fagerquist. Saunders and Sherwood were cousins.

Michael Sherwood --


Elks Parade by Bobby Sherwood --

In the Dark by Bix Beiderbecke --

Sherwood Forrest by Bobby Sherwood --

Love Turns Winter to Spring with Martha Tilton --

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Early Life of Irving Peskin Worcester’s Bix Beiderbecke

By Chet Williamson
Irving Peskin, circa 1929
When his obituary ran in the national press it was mentioned that he was a trumpeter who had played with the likes of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and the Dorsey Brothers.

He died on February 4, 2011, at the age of 103. His name was listed as Isadore Nathaniel (Niel) Parker and he was born WorcesterAs a fan of local music history, I was embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of him. After months of research however, I am now convinced that though never famous, he was one the very best musicians to have ever come out of Central New England.

Because of his brilliant “hot-jazz,” “roaring ‘20s,” trumpet style -- complete with inventive jazz improvisations and smart melodic lines, quick wit, round tone, and impeccable technique, I would even go as far as calling him the “Bix Beiderbecke of Worcester.”

Downtown Worcester in the 1920s

In his long lifetime, he wore a clothesline of names. His birth certificate lists him as Israel Peskin. City Hall identified him as Isadore Peskin. His parents were Russian immigrants who called him “Ezy” or "Izy."

According to the U.S. Census, the Peskin household between 1910 and 1920 included his father Hyumel or “Hyman,” (a tailor, who had a shop on Pleasant Street), Creashy or “Clara,” sometimes known as Kate (mother), and three children Charles, Isadore and Susie. 

The father also owned a delicatessen at 74 Harrison Street at one point. He was an early board member of the Worcester Credit Union, and an inventor with patent copyrights. Hyman was active in civic groups including the Worcester Relief Union.  In the History of Worcester and Its People, author Charles Nutt said that the organization, "has for many years done excellent work along charitable lines among the needy Jewish families."  

In 1908, the year Ezy was born, the Peskin family lived at 69 Water Street, the main thoroughfare of Worcester’s Jewish community. 

Water Street merchant, Worcester, MA courtesy of Worcester Historical Museum  

They were a musical unit who would gather in the parlor on weekends to play music. Ezy played the trumpet. His father sang. His sister played the piano and his brother, the clarinet.

At the age of four or five, his father bought Ezy a toy trumpet and by eight he was playing a Conn coronet. In an interview in 2003 with radio station WFMU in Orange, NJ, Peskin said, “I was fascinated with it … somehow or other I got a teacher, Frank Chaffin. Within a year or so I was playing little melodies on trumpet.”

Chaffin taught privately out of his home. The 1920 Worcester Directory listed him as musician living at 173 Austin StreetHe led his own band called Chaffin’s Orchestra.

Note: Peskin was 95 years-old when the interview was conducted about his Edison recordings of the 1920s. He was interviewed by Jerry Fabris, Curator of the Edison National Historical Site in W. Orange, NJ.

Peskin recalled that in grade school he had a music course. He said it was “very elementary,” but remembers that while the educator was teaching, the student was making staves and writing notes.”

Not long after beginning his lessons, Peskin also found work. Through the Grand Army of Republic (GAR), Chaffin arranged for his young trumpet student to play at funerals for veterans of the Civil War.  

1912 Conn Long Cornet

“I played, ‘The Vacant Chair’ and ‘Taps,’ Peskin said. “I got to be known that way, playing out there in the cemetery. Then I went with the Local 147. I was the youngest known member of American Federation of Musicians, at least in Massachusetts.”

Peskin told the interviewer that his family had a phonograph purchased at Walberg & Auge, and he listened to everything he could get his hands on and mentioned Jean Goldkette in particular, a band that featured Beiderbecke.

Peskin was also a huge fan of early radio. “We had crystal sets,” he said. “We were little kids. That was the big thing around Worcester. We used to get stations from New York and all over the place. We were tuned in listening to everything.”

As a teenager, Peskin played in the Holy Cross College Band, the Worcester Polytechnic Band, and at amateur night at various theaters throughout the city. With the prize money he purchased a piano for the family. He also notes that he was invited to Boston to play “on the mall,” and that his name became “known.”

The Royal Theater, Main Street, Worcester

“I was invited by WTAG to be an assistant manager,” he recalled. “I was still in high school. I was about 16. I wrote a song, ‘Alone with You in Love.’ That was the first composition I played over the air at WTAG. That was in the newspapers. I have clippings going back that far.”

WTAG's performance and recording facility

Also, in high school, Peskin, along with his brother Charles, formed his first band. It was billed as Irving Peskin and his Orchestra, “The Boy Wonder Cornetist.” “That’s what it said on the folder, the big folders outside the dancehall,” he said.

Peskin is one of two or three unidentified trumpeters, possibly sitting in the front row. 
Peskin went to Classical High School and played in the school orchestra, an ensemble that also featured his brother Charles on clarinet. An item ran with his class picture: “Charlie is rated as the best clarinet player in the consolidated orchestra. He has also mastered the saxophone, and is a member of our jazz orchestra.” It also noted that he earlier went to Sever Street Preparatory School. There is also a quote, which is attributed to Thomas Carlyle: “Music is well said to be the speech of angels.” 

Charles was asked the name of his favorite song by the school newspaper, Argus. He answered, "All By Myself," the great standard by Irving Berlin. 
At 15, Irving shared the first cornet chair in the school orchestra. At 16, he left school to play music full-time. “I actually hardly finished high school,” Peskin said. “I made it a point of going back.... I came back from New York, put in a few months, and got a high school diploma.”

Nevertheless, Peskin played the class prom in 1925. This item ran in the yearbook: “On Friday evening, June 5th, the annual Senior Prom took place at Terpischorean Hall. A radiant crowd, and excellent music supplied by Irving Peskin and His Boys, made this affair without any doubt the most enjoyed social event of the school year.”

The Peskins were classmates with Stanley Kunitz, a future National Book Award for Poetry winner, who in 1923 wrote lyrics to the class song. It should be noted that Irving was also a contemporary of other local notable musicians as Einar Swan (1903), Harry Tobias (1905), and Wendell Culley (1906).
Poet Stanley Kunitz, a member of the CHS debating team, 1923

As a “hot jazz” playing trumpeter, Peskin modeled his style after two leading lights of the 1920s.

“I patterned myself at first after Red Nichols,” he said. “I tried to adapt his style. That’s where I became fascinated by the beautiful style and the melodic lines. Later on I changed over to following Bix Beiderbecke. He was marvelous, marvelous.”  

Red Nichols

Bix Beiderbecke

While still in high school, Peskin wrote what became his best known composition, “Chinese Jumble,” a kind of tone poem with aural images of the Far East mixed with the rhythms and sounds of the Jazz Age.

“As a piece of music it was nothing,” he said. “It was filled with jumbles, little snatches of jazz phrases. No beginning. No end, just there. We called it a symphonette. We didn’t know what to call it. It was a potpourri of jazz phrases.”

Explaining the name he said, “At that time there was a black and white silent film on China -- the renegades, the warlords and the pirates on the rivers. It was a big film. We used to go to the film every week.”

“Chinese Jumble” was later recorded by Thomas Edison and published by Denton & Haskins. See:

Also, while still in high school, Peskin began studying with Georges Mager, principal trumpet with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Georges Mager, front row, fourth from the left

“I went to Boston every week for a lesson for three or four years,” Peskin said. “My training was in classical music. My interest was in jazz.”

At this time, circa 1925, the Peskin Orchestra started working dates around Boston“I had a monopoly on all the fraternity dances, all the college dances. It was my orchestra with my brother Charles, clarinet and saxophone. (Charles was a student at WPI, who later became a scientist.) 
Charles Peskin, CHS yearbook photo
The teenage Peskin would also get calls to play in other orchestras. “I was just out of high school. I got a call from Boston to do a gig playing trumpet in a band for a society function. Who was there at the time? Jerry Colonna. He was a trombone player. We became friends that lasted for many years. He was instrumental in getting me out of Worcester,” he said.

In addition to being a trombonist, Gerardo Luigi "Jerry" Colonna was a singer, songwriter, and comedian, best remembered for his work with Bob Hope.

The band that he and Peskin first worked together in was Billy Lossez and his Biltmore Orchestra. “He was the swanky society bandleader. So, I played a few dates with him. That was my first experience playing with quality stuff,” the young trumpeter said.

Note: This Providence-based band later featured trumpeter Bobby Hackett.

Peskin was known for being an inventive trumpeter. “I copied a lot of the style from Bix Beiderbecke and Red Nichols, but I developed my own style. Jerry Colonna recognized that immediately.”

In describing his own style further, Peskin said, “You hear the refined jazz style. It’s the trumpet style of Bix, my idol … It was very clear, nothing smudgy.”

When asked to describe the difference between Bix Beiderbecke and Red Nichols, Perskin said, “Bix was a composer of beautiful music. His talent was beyond. The whole music [world] recognized his talent. Red was a business man with less imagination.”
Bix Beiderbecke, Peskin's idol
Peskin drew from both players to develop his impeccable playing, but his lifestyle was quite different. Both Bix and Red were 5 years Peskin’s senior. Ernest Loring “Red” Nichols died of a heart attack at 62. Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke died tragically at 27.

Peskin lived until he was 103 and did not live the stereotypical jazz lifestyle of “live fast, love hard, and die young.” He was very much like Bix as far as being an imaginative player, but more like Nichols when it came to taking care of business. 

Speaking of his time in the recording studios in later years, Peskin said, “I appeared on time. I played the music on sight. No rehearsal. Left and got ready for the next session. I was strictly all business.”

The other prominent Boston band that Colonna and Peskin worked together in was Joe Herlihy’s Orchestra. It was the band in which the Worcester trumpeter would be first recorded and the one that brought him to New York. Here is “State and Madison,” a composition by Peskin recorded by Herlihy with the Worcester teen on trumpet: / For more see:

It should be noted that many of Herlihy’s bandmates also played in Jean Goldkette’s band, a group that once featured Bix Beiderbecke. --

“The first thing we did was to go up to Harlem and listen to the black musicians,” Peskin said, “and of course, some of them were the greatest in the whole business.”

The year was 1927 and Peskin found himself in the middle of the Jazz Age. He was 19. At the Roseland Ballroom he got to play with Chick Webb and Fletcher Henderson.

The dance floor at the Roseland Ballroom in New York
“It was the place at the time,” he said. “There was a spirit of camaraderie with the big bands. Wherever we’d go we’d sit in. I did that frequently.”

Soon, he was making the rounds in the Manhattan studios where his career flourished. Early important work came with Melvin Morris and the Piccadilly Players. Peskin then recorded for Edison Records, RCA, and Gennett, among many others. 

Here is a 1928 recording of the Piccadilly Players playing “If You Don’t Love Me,” featuring a very “Bixian” trumpet solo by Peskin:

At Columbia Records in the same year, Peskin recorded with vocalist Martha Copeland and pianist Rube Bloom on what is said to be one of the first takes of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.”

Speaking of his early work in the New York studios, Peskin said, “We had very few, if any rehearsals. Many times there’s nothing on the paper. I wouldn’t write notes. That was verboten.”

He also said that different studios had different atmospheres. 

Gennett was casual, whereas Edison was all business. “No sitting around shooting the breeze,” Peskin said. “Business and that’s it. I did very little of that in my whole career. It was dignified. I think it was because of Edison. The attitude was scientific. We were in the laboratory. We were recording at the very beginning of this whole business. There was a dignity to it. There was a scientific edge to it. Experimentation is fine, but you do it on your own time, not on the other guy’s payroll.

“I was known to be a kind of iron-lipped guy. You see, the secret is I had been trained for symphony and playing the instrument correctly with a minimum amount of pressure on the lips.  

“My path in the music life was the smoothest thing. I didn’t have any trouble presenting my product. I was playing the style of Bix. I could play the style of Red, if the leader wanted it. I was so busy trying to do a good job, I wasn’t much on socialization. I’m sorry to say. They were the top men in town. I never stretched my freedom beyond what I knew was my capability.”

Commenting on jamming, Peskin said, “Not everybody can improvise. You are born with that. Many of the top notched players, in the league with Tommy Dorsey, had not been trained for symphony. They were mostly self-taught with a little instruction. As I understand it, from someone that they thought was superior – ‘learn from your top brothers.’”

In New York, Peskin also worked extensively in radio and with a score of orchestras. A partial list of notable musicians he worked alongside, include the Dorsey Brothers, Joe Venuti, Xavier Cugat, Ed Duchin, and Benny Goodman. There is also evidence of Peskin jamming with his idol, Bix Beiderbecke. His early playing can be found on recordings by blues singer Martha Copeland, Ukulele Ike, Carl Fenton, George Olsen, and Joe Herlihy.

Fabris theorizes that Peskin’s time in New York City was a little more than a year. “He relocated to Hollywood in 1929. Most of his adult career as a musician and arranger was in Hollywood. He was never a well-established New York City studio musician. He fell in quickly with the right people, then, as the phonograph industry collapsed in New York, he went west to work in the new industry of sound films.”
Music by Melville Morris, leader of Piccadilly Players

In Hollywood, Peskin’s resume expanded exponentially. Although he spent most of his career in the recording studios, therefore in the shadows and not in the limelight, Peskin was still a flash of luminescence in the 1920s. 

Commentator Chris Barry said it best when he noted that listening to the 2003 interview with the Worcester-born trumpeter was like time travel. “Equally fascinating is how a talented musician who worked and recorded in the thick of the Jazz Age seems to have operated under the radar of researchers for generations,” he said.

For local fans the rediscovery of Irving Peskin gives us even deeper roots in the development of jazz and for that we are forever thankful. 

Nathaniel (Niel) Isadore Parker, AKA Israel “Izy” and Irving Peskin

DOB: January 20, 1908
DOD: February 4, 2011

Special thanks to Hannah Walker and Jerry Fabris in the assistance of this piece. 

* Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Also, see:  Thank you.