Sunday, July 21, 2013

Bird on the Worcester wire

By Chet Williamson 

Charlie Parker, the Bird in flight
The legendary Charlie Parker played in Worcester once, officially. Unofficially, there are tales of Bird jamming with local musicians all over Central New England. 

Weeding out fact from the weeds in any part of the saxophonist’s short and tragic life is like trying to determine your belongings caught up in a tornado.  

The only documented appearance happened at the Worcester Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday, February 9, 1954. Parker was part of a tour package called The Festival of Modern American Jazz. The bill also included Stan Kenton, Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, June Christy, Candido, and Lee Konitz.  

In his column, “Backstage with James Lee,” the Worcester Evening Gazette reporter noted, “Al Wilde, promoting the Stan Kenton Jazz Festival at the Auditorium next Tuesday, sends word Kenton will play no other New England city on this tour. He comes here from Pennsylvania and pops out the next day for White Plains, NY.

“For the real aficionados, here are the musicians who’ll be with Kenton: Buddy Childers, Sam Nato, Stu Williamson, Don Smith, Vic Minnichiello, Frank Rosolino, Bob Fitzpatrick, George Roberts, Joe Ciaveridone, Milt Gold, Bill Perkins, Chick Eddy of Milford, Charles Mariano, Dave Schildkraut, Anthony Serina, Stan Levy, Don Bagley, and Bob Lesher.”

Speaking of Parker on the Kenton tour saxophonist Schildkraut said, "Bird was no goof. He was too active, always on the move, always writing tunes. Even when he seemed to be doing nothing, things were getting done .... I had always followed him musically, and this was brought into sharp focus by an incident where the guys on the the trip once complained that I disturbed their sleep by playing in the middle of the night. I denied it but didn't seem to convince anyone. I asked around till Bird told me it was he."
Standing the tallest, Stan Kenton in a Worcester record store
Although there are numerous accounts of the Kenton show, in the way of advertisements, previews, and reviews, there is little mention of Parker in any of the local press. 

Stan Kenton was the headliner and received most of the press. In his column, under the headline of: Kenton’s Vow finally Fulfilled; Draws Big 2500 to Auditorium, Lee wrote: “Here’s the big news of the week: Stan Kenton and his orchestra finally clicked at the box office in Worcester.

Interior of Worcester Memorial Auditorium
“Tuesday night’s Jazz Festival at the Auditorium drew 2500 customers, a fancy turnout indeed, and with a top price of $3.50, that gave Stanislaus a substantial gross and a neat profit. For several years, Stan and his progressive jazz flopped all over the place when he played Worcester. Those who attended were almost fanatical in their adoration of the music but, there weren’t anywhere near enough of them.

Stan Kenton at the piano

“After one of these dates Stan announced he’d never appear in the city again. Then he changed his mind and vowed he’d keep coming here until he was successful. Well, he finally did it. True it was a profitable crowd a few years ago when he came here with the Big Show, but considering the other big names on the stage that couldn’t be credited entirely to the band.

“But Tuesday night it could. Dizzy Gillespie, Erroll Garner, and the rest were great, but Kenton obviously was the magnet that brought the crowds through the Auditorium doors.”

In addition to a review of the show, the intrepid columnist also dished some behind-the-scenes activities as well. He mentioned that after the concert, Kenton and his manager George Morte of Milford, singer June Christy (who appeared at the club the previous month), and a raft of musicians celebrated the success at the Holiday Club in Leominster. The venue was owned and operated by Morte and former Kenton saxophonist Boots Mussulli.

George Morte

Mussulli, who also hailed from Milford, was a close personal friend of Parker. Stories of Bird playing the Crystal Room in the Southern Worcester County town still abound in these parts. It’s also well known that Parker loved Mrs. Mussulli’s Italian cooking.

Mussulli, Kenton and Leo Curran

Lee also reported that the entire musical entourage afterwards returned to Worcester to close the El Morocco, which was famous for its late night revelry. The restaurant, a reported favorite of Kenton and countless other musicians was owned by the Aboody family.

Speaking of Aboody, in another feature on the Auditorium show, Lee wrote, “The Worcester Stan Kenton Club was out in force Tuesday night, led by its officers, Joe Aboody and Henry Vito. The 60 members occupied two special rows of seats down front, each one wearing a big badge containing the maestro’s picture. Stan got a kick out of it.
Joe Aboody at the El

“Kenton was a pretty happy guy when he left Worcester yesterday afternoon for White Plains, NY. He said he’ll be back here next season with another Jazz Festival,” Lee said.

The question is: Where is Bird in this picture? Who did he play with at the show? Where did he go afterwards? Did he stay in town? Did he have friends here?

Bird in flight in 1954

This is what we know of Parker’s whereabouts during this time. In most of February in 1954, he was busy touring with the Festival of Modern American Jazz. The package took him up and down the east coast from Worcester to Atlanta, parts of the north in the cities of Toronto, Detroit and Chicago, through the south from Nashville to New Orleans, and out west from Seattle to Los Angeles.  

In an interview with Stan Levey (former Kenton and Parker drummer), he recalls that Bird was ill at the time. He also notes that the saxophonist played with Dizzy Gillespie on the tour. See:

Parker joined the tour on Thursday, January 28, 1954. Just prior to that, he played a week engagement at the Hi-Hat Club in Boston. Three of the nights were recorded and have been released in a variety of packaging. A recent reissue by Blue Note, called, Bird at the Hi-Hat finds the saxophonist supported by Boston musicians, trumpeter Herbie Williams, pianist Roland Griffith, bassist Jimmy Woode, and drummer Marquis Foster.

Bird and band at the Hi-Hat. Hear sound clip at:

Whether Bird hired this lineup for his Kenton tour is not known. It should be noted that there is a private recording of Parker playing with the Kenton band from the Festival of Modern American Jazz live at Civic Auditorium in Portland, Oregon.

Here’s what the Kenton band sounded like in 1954 --

Directly following the tour, Parker worked with the Joe Rontoni Trio at the Tiffany Club in Los Angeles.          

So, again, where was Parker in Worcester? In the liner notes to the Uptown Records release titled, Charlie Parker Boston 1952, writer Bob Blumenthal asserts that on February 9, 1954, Bird played at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Elm Street in Worcester. “Boots Mussulli organized this Sunday afternoon jazz session that featured Parker’s group (with Joe Gordon) alternating with Mussulli’s group," he said.

Former Elks Lodge on Elm Street, torn down in the mid-'50s 
Trumpeter Joe Gordon
This is the same day of the Auditorium concert, whether it was before or after the show is not known. As far as the Knights of Columbus Hall, there was no such establishment. It could have been the Elks Lodge that was located on Elm Street.

In the 35-page booklet, produced by Dr. Robert Sunenblick, he states Parker worked throughout the Commonwealth including at least one other time in Worcester. In 1951, Bird did a five-city tour of the state with the incredible lineup of baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff, pianist Nat Pierce, bassist Jack Lawlor and drummer Joe MacDonald. “Coming off this tour,” Sunenblick said, “Joe MacDonald drove Parker to Christy’s in Framingham, Mass., where three of the four tracks issued on The Happy Bird LP on Parker Records were recorded.”

Sound clip here:

MacDonald remembered Wardell Gray coming out to Christy’s with Howard McGee, who was appearing at the Hi-Hat in Boston with the Oscar Pettiford Sextet.

The tour was booked by Mussulli and said to have stopped at Storrs, Conn., Northampton, Holyoke, Springfield, and a Worcester show with no information included. There is no record of Charlie Parker's appearance in this city. I spoke to a collection of musicians and jazz fans around at that time, who said if he was here they would have known it. The theory is that the show was cancelled. In Ken Vail's book, Bird's Diary; the Life of Charlie Parker 1945-1955, the author places the saxophonist at Christy's in Framingham on Thursday, April 12, 1951. The day before he had closed at Birdland. The day after, Parker was back in New York playing at the Apollo Theater. However there are open dates scattered throughout the April calender that year, but Vail cites none of the five Massachusetts shows in question.  

Dave McKenna
In the spring of 1952, Parker played at a neighborhood bar called McCann’s at 129 Pleasant Street in Leominster.“Parker appeared here for Sunday afternoon jam session playing his white plastic alto sax,” Blumenthal said. The personnel with Parker were listed as pianist Dave McKenna, bassist Dick Whetmore and drummer Jimmy Wyner. 

Both shots of McCann's Cafe by Kastellano's, courtesy of the Leominster Historical Society
Other local Parker dates include possibly two others at the Cyrstal Room in Milford, possibly in 1952 and '53. The band for at least once of the shows included McKenna and Worcester trumpeter Emil Haddad.

Whether or not the Charlie Parker appearances in Worcester become fully documented is yet to be determined. What is certain is the fact that his musical impact was enormous and enduring. His influence on musicians -- both of his generation and beyond -- continue to be felt in Central New England and around the world. Parker died one year after the Auditorium appearance on March 12, 1955. He was 34.

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


Yardbird Suite: A Compendium of the Music and Life of Charlie Parker

Lee Konitz talking about the Kenton tour with Bird


  1. Great article. Thanks Chet!

    Now I have to ask my parents why we missed the show. Ok, it was a year and a week after my birth, but I was already groovin' to Dad's collection of Benny Goodman records.

    1. Nice Ornithology work Chet! I read somewhere that toward the end of his life, Bird worked clubs in New England partly because he couldn't work in NYC, due to not having a cabaret card (required then for all who worked in clubs serving alcohol).
      Anyway, what a fascinating historical addition to his discography/bio. Thanks, man.

  2. Bird and Dizzy did both play on this tour, but not together. Bird played an arrangement of Night and Day he had recorded with Mercury, and then two new arrangements, My Funny Valentine and Cherokee, by the brilliant young Kenton arranger Bill Holman. Dizzy had his own features, which tended to go on and on and get a bit silly.