Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Plymouth and its pilgrims

By Chet Williamson

In the early days of jazz, long before the music was codified and taught in academia, the magical mysteries of the music were -- as the old timers would say – “learned on the bandstand.”

A collection of Saxtrum Club's founding members with Jaki Byard at far right, front row 

Mentoring was the key to the highway. Up and coming players gathered information heard on radio, recordings, books, and from other practitioners. Role models were where you found them.

To rub elbows with professionals was rare, especially of the touring kind. To play with the jazz stars of the day was virtually unheard of -- unless of course you were fortunate enough to find them at an after-hours jam session.

Barney Price singing with saxophonists Guido Grandpietro and Howie Jefferson

Here in Central New England, the musicians of the “Greatest Generation” -- those born in the Depression and fought in WWII -- created a local venue that attracted some of best and brightest players of the day.

It was called the Saxtrum Club, a musician’s cooperative located in the Laurel/Clayton neighborhood. The Plymouth Theater (now called the Palladium) at 261 Main Street was its wellspring.

Plymouth interior

The great pianist Jaki Byard was one of the club’s founders. In an interview with Len Lyons for his book, The Great Pianists, Byard said, “It was a private club organized by a few of us musicians. We used to jam and hold rehearsals there. The jam sessions were usually started after midnight.
Young Jaki

“There was a nearby theater where the big names played, and they used to come in to jam with us: Joe Venuti, Basie, the members of Stan Kenton’s early orchestra. I was sixteen, and I guess I originated the name, Saxtrum, for sax, trumpet, and drums. I was playing trumpet at the time with a local band led by Howie Jefferson.”

Young Barney Price

Young Howie Jefferson

In Worcester jazz lore, tales  of legendary figures such as Roy Eldridge, Chu Berry, Herschel Evans, Gene Krupa, and a young singer named Frank Sinatra burned the midnight oil at the club in jam sessions that still conjure tales for the ages. This, of course, was after completing their public performance at the Plymouth.

Plymouth Lobby

In 1941 alone, Basie, Venuti, as well as Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Ina Ray Hutton, Charlie Barnet, Louie Prima, and the Ink Spots headlined the Plymouth’s marquee. 

Local musicians to benefit from such nights eventually became national players themselves -- Byard, Barbara Carroll, Don Asher, Bobby Holt, Murray Guarlnick, Paul Kokunen, Ockie Menard, Lou Mercuri  and Don Fagerquist, just to name a few --  not to mention local heroes like Emil Haddad, Eddy Shamgochian, Rockie Blunt, and co-founders Howie Jefferson and Barney Price, who were presented with travel opportunities, but opted to stay home.   

The impact, influence, and inspiration drawn from these musical encounters were immeasurable. In a 1969 interview with writer Ev Skehan, saxophonist Howie Jefferson said, “I remember Sam Donahue comin’ into the club and sittin’ in his tenor case and wailin’ right through about 20 choruses of ‘Indiana’ without ever comin’ up for air. Main, that cat could blow.”

The dates of these exchanges are difficult to pin down. The Saxtrum Club dates roughly from 1938 to some time in the war years. In the years that the club was open, virtually every name act and big band on the touring circuit played Worcester. Unfortunately, most of the Saxtrum's more than 100 members are now gone. 

In addition to those mentioned, other club members include: Ralph Briscott, Dick Murray, Harold Black, Jude Wade, Dave Robertson, Dick Adshead, Joe Ferrazano, Tony Finelli, Phil Scott, Bill Toney, Kenny Proctor, Eddie Dolbare, Al Mercury, Billy Halbeck, Hal Drelinger, Eddie Temple, Benny Hurwitz, Franny O’Connor, Moe Batchelder, Lou Levine, Mary Conlin, and Bert Hardin. Other musicians active in that period who may have jammed at the club were Eddie Dolbare, Luke Myers, Pete and Alice Price, Morgan Sorrell, Tony Mandel, Rod Ford, Miff George and Gretchen Morrow.  

Another regular at the Saxtrum was Al Hirt. “Old Jumbo was stationed up at Fort Devens,” Jefferson said. “It got so he was at the club every Saturday night.”

Al "Jumbo" Hirt
These names represent the deepest bench of jazz musicians Worcester has ever offered. The historic Plymouth Theater, built in the late 1920s, was a 3,000-seat venue situated on the corner of Main and Central streets. The Saxtrum Club was located in a storefront on the corner of Glenn and Clayton Street (Plumley Village today), less than a mile away.

In the early 1940s, the Plymouth would showcase acts for three nights. “Tuesdays nights they tore the roof off the Saxtrum Club, Skehan said. "The name bands would arrive in Worcester on Monday for a three-day engagement at the Plymouth. Having traveled many miles by bus or car, they’d all fall into the Saxtrum as soon as their gig was over at the Plymouth

"They’d play until the early hours of the morning, challenging the local musicians with new ideas and sounds. Then, on Wednesday night, the band would finish at the Plymouth and be back on the road. It was a ritual each musician looked forward to whenever he came to Worcester.”

According to Skehan, out of these sessions the Saxtrum Club’s reputation spread far beyond the confines of Worcester, drawing national attention. “Musicians from all over the country knew that here was a place where jazz men got together to exchange ideas, to create, to “carve” each other, and to help each other. They loved it. The freedom of expression and impromptu jazz sessions that typified the Saxtrum Club spread quickly through the area. Before long musicians were beating a path to the club’s door.”

Skehan also contends that at the same time that the Saxtrum Club “really began to swing, the big-name bands were appearing at the Plymouth Theater.” He lists such national acts as Tommy Reynolds, Scat Davis, Gene Krupa, Chu Berry, Carl Hoff, Roy Eldridge, Anita O’Day, Cozy Cole, Cab Calloway, Sam Donahue, Charlie Ventura, and many others made frequent visits to the club and “sat in” with the local musicians.”

Other names rumored to make the trek from the Plymouth to the Saxtrum include Hershel Evans, Lucky Millender, Fats Waller, Charlie Ventura, Anita O’Day, and Don Byas -- all conceivable given their documented Worcester public appearances at the time. 

As the war raged in Europe, more and more young Worcester musicians laid down their instruments and picked up arms to join the fight.   

“In the early 1940s many of the local musicians went into the armed forces,” Skehan wrote. “This was the end of the Saxtrum Club. Although the few members who stayed out of the service tried to keep the club alive, things just weren’t the same. Funds soon ran out and the club was abandoned.”

Through name changes, a variety of owners, and its recent dodging of the wrecking ball, the Plymouth Theater continued to stage national acts. Although nary a jazz musician graces the bill today, every starlit evening the ghosts of yesterday make a bee-line to the corner of Glenn and Clayton streets to wake up the dawn with music.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Boogie-Woogie Boy Bobby Holt

By Chet Williamson

Although he played with Emil Haddad, one of Central New England’s best known musicians, pianist Bobby Holt is a largely forgotten name in the annals of local jazz history

Given the fact that he also played with national acts the likes of Will Bradley, Ina Ray Hutton, and Al Hirt, his profile should be much more recognized.

By most accounts, Bobby Holt was a self-taught pianist, but his mother played the keyboard in the family home. He was somewhat of a child prodigy. At 9, he led his own band, the Kandy Kids, and appeared every Friday at 6:45 p.m. on WORC radio. According to the Worcester Directory, the family lived at 75 Grove Street at the time of Bobby's birth.

Bandleader Eddy “Sham” Shamgochian recalls first hearing him in the 1930s with fellow drummer Eddie Dolbare’s band. “That was a good little band,” he said. “They had a great guitarist by the name of Lou Mercuri [who went on to play with Claude Thornhill]. Bobby was a couple of years older. He was very fine player.”

Eddie Dolbare's Band
According to Worcester Telegram & Gazette writer Ev Skehan, Holt was a regular at the Saxtrum Club, a storefront in the Laurel/Clayton neighborhood owned and operated by young jazz musicians. There, Holt got to test his mettle among such local piano players as Jaki Byard, Don Asher, and Barbara Carroll.

Art Hodes
This was before WWII, in the late 1930s, when Holt was still a teenager. He spent three years at North High School, where he sang in the Boys Glee Club. Holt loved to play the emerging blues piano style known as boogie-woogie, best exemplified by Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Meade Lux Lewis. His favorite player was a “two-fisted blues traditionalist” name Art Hodes, whom he later befriended.

Young Bobby in action
In his book, The Story of Boogie-Woogie: A Left Hand Like God, author Peter J. Silvester stated: “A friendship with Art Hodes assisted [Holt] with the mastery of the boogie-woogie style, which he played with conviction.”

Holt’s break came in 1941 when he received a call to join a national touring band led by trombonist and bandleader Will Bradley of "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar" fame. “Holt was leading a band in Worcester, Massachusetts, when the call came,” Silvester said. “Before that he had spent 1940 working in New York attempting to gain recognition for his piano playing,” Silvester said.

Although the opportunity to tour and record for the first time came with Bradley band, Holt’s stay was not long, only two months. He did hang long enough to ask Bradley to be the godfather of Holt’s daughter, Linda.

Holt’s departure was covered by Downbeat, who reported that he was replaced by Billie Maxted for its opening night at the Hotel Astor in Times Square. No other reason was given. Although it is assumed that Bradley was looking to shed his reputation as a band that played boogie-woogie music.

On the road with the Bradley band 

Ray McKinley, Don Goldberg, and young Bobby

“In 1941, Bradley made public his views about the band’s boogie-woogie policy, saying he did not want to be known as the King of Boogie-Woogie, particularly as being misapplied to any music associated with jitterbugs,” Silvester said.

Prior to Holt’s arrival, pianist Freddie Slack was featured and a tremendous draw in the Bradley band, along with the drumming and singing of Ray McKinley. According to Silvester, fans expected to see Slack hammering out his signature eight-to-the-bar beat. “Freddie Slack should be credited with introducing several new ideas into his boogie-woogie interpretations and his arrangements of orchestrated boogie-woogie pieces,” he said. “His efforts probably helped to make boogie-woogie acceptable to a wider audience by removing much of the elemental treble dissonance and introducing in its place catch melodies that could be whistled or hummed and lyrics that were in keeping with the ‘hep cat’ attitudes of popular American culture of the 1940s.”

This Billboard ad highlights the fact Bradley is featuring drummer Shelly Manne and pianist "Bobbie Holt."

In describing the piano work of Holt, Silvester asserted that, “More than any other white pianist playing boogie-woogie at the time, Holt experimented with playing new and complex basses. The effect was highly original and contrapuntal form of 
Bobby on stage 

Holt scuffled around New York working with such stars as Ray McKinley and Ina Ray Hutton. As WWII began to intensify in Europe, Holt set aside the music to join in the war effort. On September 28, 1942, he traveled to Springfield, MA and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. His occupation at the time of enlistment was “musician and teacher of music.” He is listed as being 5’ 6” tall, weighing 122 pounds, and married.

After the war, Sgt. Holt returned to town and opened a teaching studio in the Day Building in downtown Worcester where he taught the “modern piano method.”  He and his young family lived at 22 William Street.

He also hooked up with drummer Ed Shamgochian, whose ensemble became the house band at the Ye Old Tavern in West Brookfield. The group also played summers at the Sea Crest Beach Hotel in Falmouth on the Cape. Other members included Emil Haddad, Paul Burby, Eddie Defino, and Teddy Lane.

In 1948, Holt appeared with George Robinson’s orchestra at the Moors, a nightclub and showcase in Shrewsbury. However, before the year was out, he re-enlisted in the military and for the next 26 years was a working pianist in the Unites States Air Force.

Burby, Holt, Sham, Defino, and Haddad
Originally stationed at Westover Air Force, Chicopee, MA, Holt’s tour of duty took him to Waco, Texas; West Palm Beach, Fl.; Reykjavik, Iceland and the island of Guam

Upon retirement in 1969, Holt first settled in Chicopee and took a job teaching at the Cathedral High School in Wilbraham and taught privately. He also moonlighted as the pianist in the Teddy Lockwood Band.

His first wife, Vivian (Hallback) died in 1976 and Holt married Eileen Gelsone in 1977. The newly weds thought it was time to leave New England weather and headed south. She had family in Texas. Along the way, Holt decided to stop in New Orleans and look up old military friend Al Hirt. The two musicians were stationed together in Massachusetts during the war.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time. The renowned trumpeter’s pianist had just given his notice and offered Holt the gig. The Worcester-born pianist accepted and immediately Holt began working with Hirt culminating in an appearance on the Johnny Carson show. The program is dated at December 11, 1979, where the band played “Hot Lips and Sugar Blues.” 

Holt with Hirt in New Orleans
The Holts settled into Metairie, Louisiana. She was a nurse and Bobby played at Hirt’s nightclub in New Orleans. After 10 months of the late nights in the Crescent City, the “City That Care Forgot,” the Holts moved on to Texas, where Eileen’s children (from a former marriage) had settled. The couple lived in the Kerrville/Fredricksville area. At this time, Holt was approaching 70, but continued to play in general business and jazz bands in town.  
Family members recall that Bobby started showing signs of memory loss as early 1993. He was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, yet he continued to play the piano to the end. He died in San Antonio, Texas in 2001. In a gesture fitting this great American, a memorial service was held for Mr. Holt at the Park Congregational Church, 80 Russell St., here in Worcester.

Robert “Bobby” John Holt

DOB: June 13, 1921
DOD: June 22, 2001 

Special thanks to the Holt family for their assistance in the piece.

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


Eddie Sham

Will Bradley

Lou Mercuri’s obit

Art Hodes obit

Ray McKinley

Holt with Bradley on record

Monday, June 10, 2013

Bal-a-l’Air and Sun Valley

By Chet Williamson

For more than a decade – roughly 1938-1948 – it was the big band showcase of Central New England

Today, it is virtually forgotten. For those who danced until dawn at the ballroom, however, recollections of the venue still burn brightly in their book of stardust memories.  

Located at the intersection of routes 9 and 20, heading east to Boston on the Shrewsbury/Northborough line, it was first called Bel-a-l’Air, an outdoor dance pavilion where the Christmas Tree Shops now sit. It would later be called Sun Valley.

From its stages, the best and brightest names of the era were read on the marquee. On many a starry night such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Woody Herman lit up local skies.

The name Bel-a-l’Air signifies what it was, something beautiful out-of-doors. Given that, it was a seasonal operation. Back before the invention of air-conditioning, outdoor ballrooms grew out of necessity.

In the summer months, the highly energetic propulsion of swing dancing just did not work in the sweaty confines of city buildings. So from Memorial Day to Labor Day, dances were held outdoors with only the sky as their canopy.

This card is postmarked 1908. Its caption reads: Open Air Theater, Lake Quinsigamond, Worcester, MA.  

In addition to presenting top bands of the day, the facility was also, as one ad stated: “Available for outing or dances to organizations,” so banquets, weddings and other social functions were also held there.

Like most outdoor ballrooms and dance pavilions of the period, Bel-a-l’Air, had a covering for rain showers, but not much else. In the event of stormy weather, shows were obviously cancelled or postponed. That’s fine for local bands on the bill, but for national acts, it was death for promoters.   

“If the weather was good you played. If not, you didn’t,” says local drummer Ed Shamgochian. “It’s as simple as that. New England was it in the summer. You’d suffocate in the New York ballrooms. There was no air. And, touring was rough in those days. A lot of bands didn’t go further west than Chicago.”

Although no known photos have yet surfaced, Bel-a-l’Air could be seen from Route 9. It had large dance floor that could hold hundreds of steppers, ringed by a grassy-tiered area for additional viewing and seating. According to Linda Davis of the Shrewsbury Historical Society, it was inadvertently dug up during the construction of the Christmas Tree Shops. It had a raised stage and early advertisements indicate that the establishment served food with a “beer garden.”

The earliest shows at Bel-a-l’Air date from the late 1930s. They featured such talent as the Dol Brissette and the Bob Pooley orchestras, two local bands who also had radio shows on WTAG. Note that the advertised Pooley show was a “midnight dance” with “dancing ‘til dawn.”

The earliest known national acts included Duke Ellington, Bob Crosby’s Bobcats, Chick Webb with Ella Fitzgerald, and the Coquettes. 

Other headliners include, Bob Richman (And His Sophisticated Swing), Jan Campbell (That Genial Gentleman from the South, featuring Mary Lou Winters), and Tasker Crossen (And His Twelve Southern Statesmen).
By the 1940s, Bal-a-l’Air came under the ownership of Charlie Shribman and renamed, Sun Valley. Shribman put the pavilion on the national map. He was well-heeled, connected, and had a long history of promoting popular music, especially if delivered by the big bands.

In his book The Boston Jazz Chronicles, author Richard Vacca reports that Shribman’s sphere of influence reached as far back as the 1920s. “It was a period of feverish activity in Boston and all of New England, and at the center of it was Charlie Shribman, who controlled bookings for a ballroom network that stretched across the Northeast,” Vacca wrote. “Shribman was a kingmaker in the band business, and together with his brother Cy, made Mal Hallett a star, and played a significant role in the early career of Duke Ellington.

“They owned ballrooms, financed bands and used radio and publicity as well as anyone in the business. It was Ellington who said, “There wouldn’t be a band if it wasn’t for Charlie Shribman. He’s kept the whole racket going and a lot of guys would be starving if he hadn’t helped them.”

Vacca went on to say that Shribman was “abetted by the geography of New England. Physical distance was the enemy of the road band. Bands mostly rode buses, and across most of the country, the distance between one-night engagements could be 300 miles or more, a distance that had to be covered overnight. It was a dreadful way to live.

“But in the northeast, no such distance separated the population centers. The jumps were a much more manageable 50 to 75 miles, and Shribman arranged a booking in all of them. Musicians follow the work, and Schribman had the work. His circuit made the dance-crazy northeast the big band capital of the country in the 1920s and 1930s.”

Now in his late eighties, drummer Shamgochian, better known as “Eddy Sham,” played at Sun Valley with the Bob Pooley Band. It was a popular local ensemble that featured such Worcester notables as Don Fagerquist, Murray Guarlnick, Paul Gervais, Carl Deitman, and Tommy Tobin.

“We had a good nucleus of players,” Sham said. “We could all read and swing. In 1943-’44, Mal Hallett took over the band. We were all pros, and because of that, we were often asked to fill in at Sun Valley. If Woody Herman’s band broke down somewhere, Shribman would call us to play.”  

Here are some of the other headliners to fill the bill at Sun Valley: Harry James, Horace Heidt, Sammy Kaye, Claude Thornhill, Vaughn Monroe, Charlie Spivak, Georgie Auld, Jess Stacy with Lee Wiley, Lee Castle, and Tony Pastor. It should be noted that the Worcester promoter and club owner Frank Duffy presented many shows for Shribman at Sun Valley.  

Harry James serenading a rapt audience

Other than advertisements, not much press was given to shows at Sun Valley, even though they featured the greatest Big Bands playing the most popular songs of the day. One exception was James Lee, entertainment beat writer for the Worcester Evening Gazette. Besides an occasional mention of upcoming acts, Lee’s favorite quip was, “Change the name of Sun Valley to Moon Valley. Patrons never see the sun there, but the moon is bee-oo-ti-ful.”

In one of his columns “Backstage by James Lee,” titled “Turnpike is Becoming Vast Amusement Midway,” the well-liked scribe did at least acknowledge its presence. “The Worcester end of the Turnpike already can point to theaters, an amusement park, outstanding nightclubs, an airport, a ballroom and numerous smaller enticements for those seeking divertissement. And show people look upon this as only the beginning. In Shrewsbury, next door to Worcester, the Turnpike includes White City Park, the Moors nightclub, an outdoor movie theater and Sun Valley, outdoor ballroom. 

On the ‘pike in Westboro are the Red Barn Theater, the new midget track, the 1880 Club and airport, located conveniently to one side of Framingham’s chief contribution, the Meadows night club.”   

Collectively speaking, it is easy to imagine that in addition to the headlining names that played at Sun Valley, many of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century may have also stood on the Shrewsbury stage. Think of those who worked with Ellington – Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, et al ... or with Woody Herman – Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff, with Harry James – Gene Krupa, Roy Eldridge, Anita O’Day … Astonishing!

By the late forties it was all over. Big Bands were out of favor and Shribman sold Sun Valley. In 1948, Duke Ellington played at the grand reopening. Billboard magazine covered it. Dateline: May 15, 1948 -- “Sun Valley Ballroom, Shrewsbury, MA, on Worcester/Boston Turnpike, will reopen for the summer with new ownership (formerly operated by Charlie Shribman) and a one-nighter band policy.”

In spite of the one last hurrah by its new owners, the midnight sun had set on the valley. A 1949 Worcester Evening Gazette headline reads: “Norwood Man Leases Sun Valley And Will Install Ballet Company.” The piece ran with no byline and stated: “James Collins of Norwood announced he had signed a two year lease, with options, from Charlie Shribman of Boston name band booker, who has had the property in recent years … Ballroom dancing there will be practically a thing of the past.”

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


See Jame Lee columns in the Worcester Evening Gazette and the Worcester Sunday Telegram, 1937-1948 (microfilm at Worcester Public Library).