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.


  1. Congratulations on your blog with many interesting info and pictures. I'm a Cab Calloway fan and would like to know the exact date for his gig at the Plymouth. Thank you for you reply.
    You may check my website about Cab Calloway:

  2. Wow, this is great! I'm a maintenance guy at the Plymouth, now the Palladium and am no great shakes at researching the place, or anything he he. This is a wonderful resource for me! My paintbrush and I are still working on making her shine again and these images, posters, and education sure do make me smile. Great article! To think that I mop a stage that was graced by Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie just blows my mind. I could be making more money elsewhere, but I love my old theater. I love her dearly. Thanks for providing such an enlightening piece!!!