Friday, August 2, 2013

Stellar reflections of the Crystal Room

By Chet Williamson

Growing up in Worcester in the 1950s and ‘60s, I heard stories of the great players and wondrous happenings going on in Milford, Mass. It was said that down there in the south county, “You could fall off a rock and hit a jazz musician.” 

After all, Milford was the birthplace of the great saxophonist Boots Mussulli. He was a legendary musician who came to prominence with Stan Kenton in the ‘40’s, and toured with him again in the mid-50’s, but eventually left the road and settled back into his hometown. There, he raised his family, and enjoyed a second level of local renown as a music teacher and mentor, and for booking a magical musical venue called the Crystal Room. The place, as legend had it and as I always heard it is, “where Charlie Parker played.”

Downtown Milford, circa early 1960s

Trying to bring into focus and document life from years gone by is a little like asking the wind to be still. Separating cleared-eyed memory from second-hand assumptions becomes a daunting task as time slips away.  

“That which we do is what we are. That which we remember is, more often than not, that which we would like to have been, or that which we hope to be. Thus our memory and our identity are ever at odds, our history ever a tall tale told by inattentive idealists.” – Ralph Ellison from Golden Age, Time Past

Nevertheless, what little recorded history we have, coupled with the collective memory of those fortunate enough to have experienced the Crystal Room in person, gives us a portrait of a mythical place deserving of the appellation: Jazz Mecca.

Consider the established names who played there and those who came of age on its bandstand. Here’s the Who’s Who of some of its headliners: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Harry James, Charlie Barnet, Dizzy Gillespie, George Shearing, the Four Freshmen, Serge Chaloff, and Carmen McRae. A partial list of the supporting cast and local musicians includes Dave McKenna, Emil Haddad, Ziggy Minichiello, Al Cass, Chick Eddy, Joe Holovnia, Bob Varney, Tony Chick, John Acaro, Paul Drummond, and Sonny Dee. 

The Crystal Room was located in the lower level of the Sons of Italy Hall at 45 Sumner Street, Milford. The upstairs hall was reserved for weddings, anniversaries, private parties, and other social functions. 

The original S. of I. chapter No. 1356 was housed in an old mansion next door. It was lost to a fire. The new building was adjacent and there is nary an Italian family in all of Milford who hadn't held a wedding there. And, chances are local musicians were hired to play the occasion.

The original entrance to the Crystal Room

Today, the new building is the home of THAT Corporation, a Milford-based company that designs and manufactures high quality audio technology in the form of integrated circuits, licensed intellectual property, and semiconductor fabrication. THAT’s owners are well aware of the structure’s history and the Crystal Room’s significance, and they respectfully honor it. Executive Vice President Paul Travaline knew from the first day he stepped into the building that it possessed something special. “I actually said, ‘This would be a great place to play music’.”

Inlay in the Sons of Italy floor

Originally from Waltham, where the company was founded, Travaline was approached by countless people from the Milford community with stories about the hall’s glory days. “I can’t tell you how many older musicians would stop by and say, ‘I used to play here.’”

Travaline describing the hall
Travaline entering the hall
To pay homage, the company purchased a collection of rarely seen photos taken by the late Al Tomaso of the musicians who plied their trade at the Crystal Room

Now blown-up and handsomely framed, the pictures capture some the best musicians that America ever produced in action. Boots Mussulli is the star attraction, and in one frame he’s seated at the piano with Duke Ellington looking on. 

Other photos include those of a young Maynard Ferguson in full flight. There’s Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet with guitar legend Les Spann. Count Basie looks as regal as ever. That’s Carmen McRae in her early days. One of most talked about photos in the series is one of Lionel Hampton standing on top of a patrons’ table while tapping his drumstick on one of the hall's light fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

Tomaso’s stills bring the Crystal Room to life. You see adults enjoying nightlife, people smoking, drinking, eating, and digging jazz. You see the seating arrangement – up close, right in the lap of the bands. *Note: Respecting the photographers wishes, Travaline says that he had promised Tomaso and his family that no pictures be taken of the photographs.

Mussulli at the piano with Ellington by Tomaso, courtesy of Steve Minichiello 

The above shot is the only known published photo by Tomaso that also appears on the Crystal Room wall. It was first published in the Worcester Telegram and later in the Middlesex News

The Crystal Room now serves as THAT Corporation’s cafeteria. It’s been renovated, but not remodeled. The original dance floor is still there. Behind the kitchen area was a mirrored wall. The bar was set at the other end of the room. The photographs run along the wall where the stage once stood. In one corner of the room a drum kit, some amplifiers, and a PA system are setup. “We have a lot of musicians working for us,” Travaline said. “Some of them rehearse here.”

For more on THAT see:

Mussulli’s involvement with the establishment goes way back. He and his family were members of the Sons of Italy. Almost from beginning he played and produced shows there, long before he was formally involved with booking the room. In fact, early advertisements show him in performance at the hall with his various groups. The Tomaso photographs are dated from 1948 to 1967. (The photographer died in 2009.) The highest concentration of shows occurred in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s.

Some of the more memorable early shows include appearances by Charlie Parker. In two published ads, trumpeter Red Rodney, who played with Bird between 1949 and ’52, is listed with the band.  Other accounts of Birdlore say that Parker played in Milford in 1953, in which case Rodney was still playing occasional dates with him. Of particular interest are the local musicians on both bills. The first ad reads: Paul Drummond, “Negro Drummer Man.” Mussulli, Dave McKenna, Sonny Dee, Emil Haddad, Chick Eddy, and Al Cass are also listed. Playing with Bird would have been a calling card for the locals. The admission cost: $1.00. 

Other early Crystal Room shows include the bands of Charlie Ventura, who Boots toured with in a great, but largely unheralded Bebop ensemble, and those of Woody Herman and Lionel Hampton, who appeared numerous times. Mussulli worked the room often with his own exceptional quartet that featured pianist Danny Camacho, bassist Joe Holovnia, and a trio of drummers, Arthur Andre, Paul Drummond, and Alan Dawson. Mussulli also led his own big band.  

As aforementioned, by the late ‘50s, Mussulli had left the road and concentrated on local teaching, playing, and freelance work with a variety of big bands, most notably Herb Pomeroy’s Boston-based orchestra. By 1959, Boots with the assistance of Leo Curran, a longtime friend and fellow Milford native, booked the Crystal Room exclusively. The lineup was more than impressive, especially for a town the size of Milford (approximately 20,000), and the Crystal became a local jazz venue with a national reputation.

Worcester drummer Bobby Gould and Mussulli at the Crystal, courtesy of Ken Sawyer

In a 2003 interview with Curran, the former road manger for Stan Kenton said, “We had everybody at the Crystal Room. Maynard Ferguson used to be there all the time. Herb Pomeroy.  I remember when the house pianist was Dave McKenna. Later on, Chick Corea.  Jackie Stevens used to bring in Chick Corea.

"I remember one night at Boots Mussulli house having a spaghetti dinner with Charlie Parker. Bird had a huge appetite. Unreal. He was telling Boots. Don’t do the drug thing man, man. Smoke a little grass. You know, man you can’t play when you do that. Here’s the genius of the alto saxophone telling another saxophonist not to do the drug thing." 

Curran also recalled, the Crystal Room as being, "a great hangout. Being on the road and knowing what a drag it was and what a problem we had with the restaurants, we always fed the band. I remember guys in Woody Herman’s band saying, 'We like to work for Boots because we’d always get such good food.'  

"Abe Kurchin, who was Woody Herman’s manager called once saying, ‘Man, I got Monday night open.’ I said, ‘What kind of bread you want?’ He says, 'Gas money.' I said, 'What’s gas money.' He says, '$500.' I said, '$400 and a meal.' He said, 'For the whole band?' I said, 'Yes. He said, ‘Good deal. We’ll go for it.’"

Saxophonist Jackie Stevens, pianist Danny Camacho, and bassist Joe Holovnia live at the Crystal

Saxophonist Ken Sawyer was a 14 year-old teenager when he first started studying with Mussulli. For 10 years he received lessons on the clarinet, saxophone, writing and arranging. At 18, he started a career in radio. He recalls the glory days of the Crystal Room vividly. “Here’s what Boots would do,” Sawyer explained. “He would find out where Duke Ellington was appearing on Friday and Saturday nights in Boston. He’d call him up and say, ‘Duke give me a gas money night, a Tuesday. Or, ‘Are you busy on that Thursday?’”

Young Ken Sawyer with Lionel Hampton
“He had stuff going just about every week, sometimes a couple of times a week. I know I saw the contracts because I was the secretary of the Milford musicians union. I saw the Duke Ellington contracts, Basie, Harry James, Four Freshman, Carmen McRae, all the bands. It would be a lot of off nights.”

When asked to describe the Crystal Room, Sawyer said, “I remember the smoke. We’d have to go outside to get a breath of fresh air. The room was like – not too high a ceiling. All the poles made the Crystal Room. They all had crystallized glass -- hence, the name. The stage was two, three inches off the floor. It wasn’t a big glamorous stage, but Duke Ellington had in his contract that you had to go by his specifications. For example, Johnny Hodges had to be four inches off the floor with the saxophone section. The trumpet section had to be little bit higher. And, Boots had the stage built for him.”

In the early days the only piano was an old upright. “They had a baby grand later,” Sawyer said. “Lalo Schiffrin, who was with Dizzy Gillespie, played the upright. I watched for the first time an upright rock back and forth when he played it.”

Sawyer was a programmer at Milford radio station, WMRC and emceed shows at the Crystal Room. For nearly five years, many of the performances were broadcast live on the station. “We’d do live half-hour broadcasts,” he said. “It would be like 8:30-9 p.m. I’d get permission from the musician’s union. We couldn’t pay them so I’d have to get permission from the leader of the band. I would talk to Harry James before the broadcast and say, ‘Do you mind? We are going to broadcast live over a local station. Is it okay with you guys?’

“I remember a couple of times I had to sell the ‘sandwich special of the night’ before introducing Harry James. He impressed me a lot because they all had their instruments up to their mouths and ready. As soon as I announced: ‘The Harry James Orchestra,’ Wham! They hit it. Harry James and Count Basie were the two most radio-conscious bandleaders.”

Unfortunately, none of WMRC shows were captured on tape – at least none have surfaced. “They were all live broadcasts,” Sawyer said. “None were professionally recorded, but musician Bunny Calabrese made his own LP of the Count Basie concert. I know, because he called me up and wanted to know if I wanted to hear myself on record.”

In describing the layout of the hall, Sawyer recalled, “You’d get your tickets outside and go down into the Crystal Room. When you first walked in the door the stage was at your right. Way down the other end was the bar. There were small round tables and chairs. No glamour. The place had to be full to pay for the kind of entertainment they had. It was usually a concert. There was no dancing. The seating? It held more than a couple hundred people.”

When asked about the sound, Sawyer said, “The sound system was always good there. I would have a microphone. It would not be like nowadays with five or six microphones on stage. Certain bands would come with their own engineer.”

“The Crystal Room was on a national map,” Sawyer offered. “Some nights it was more happening than Boston. You couldn’t go see the Four Freshmen on a Tuesday night in Boston, you know. I remember Boots tried to book Sinatra. I was involved. I had some money invested myself but it didn’t come to pass.

“Boots rented the hall. It wasn’t easy doing jazz. Even then. There were times when he would take a bath. You have to consider that they were off nights, like Tuesdays. Boots not only did the nightclub concerts, but he also did the daytime kid’s concerts. It would be like on a Sunday afternoon and he would hire a rock band and a jazz band. One time he had Charlie Ventura’s trio with Dave McKenna on piano and a rock band.”

Sawyer not only emceed shows, but being a working musician, he also had the good fortune to play the Crystal Room. His band opened for the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Herb Pomeroy, among others. Asked what his favorite shows were he immediately said, “Frank Foster and Frank Wess, the battling tenors in the Basie band. And it was fun to watch drummer Sonny Payne. Leo Wright with Dizzy. He was great. Lalo was not known then. He amazed me.

“I saw Serge when he was in a wheelchair. His body was wilting, you could see how weak he was, but he still played great. Boots had booked the thing because he knew that Serge was on the way out. They were great friends and had played together. He is my favorite saxophonist. I had the pleasure of talking with Serge that night. It was his quartet or trio? Ray Santisi played piano. Jimmy Zitano, the drummer…. Fantastic.”

The Herb Pomeroy sax section at the Crystal, as its leader looks on 
Sawyer says he wasn’t around for the club’s demise. “I got married in ’66, and before that I was out gigging around. Boots died in ’67, but, the ‘hey day’ of the Crystal Room was late ‘50s, early 60s. Things change. We were up against a strong rock ‘n’ roll situation at that particular time. It became the music with younger people.

Written in Mussulli's handwriting, courtesy of Ken Sawyer

Given the opportunity to walk through these hallowed halls chasing the jazz ghosts of yesteryear reminds one of how important it is to honor these humble shrines, and to recognize that this is our heritage.  

Long live the legacy of the Crystal Room.

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


  1. Chet, this is another amazing piece. Your writing is so well researched and the photos, newspaper ads and articles, broadsides, etc. are a treasure to see.

    Thanks for all your hard work and for your generosity in sharing your work with our whole jazz community!


  2. It is a truly remarkable thing that you have achieved. You should be very proud of yourselves
    crystal saxophone