Friday, August 23, 2013

Chet Baker’s Worcester curse

By Chet Williamson

It’s common knowledge that in addition to being a famous jazz trumpeter, Chet Baker was also a notorious junkie. 

Many of his drug-addled days were littered with tall tales shrouded in myth, even in death. He died tragically as a result of falling out of a window in 1988.

One of the more unusual stories of Baker’s dope chasing happened in Worcester

The account is documented in James Gavin’s biography, Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker.



Evidently, for years Baker and fellow musician Gerry Mulligan were under constant surveillance and harassment of John Edward O’Grady, head of the narcotics bureau of Hollywood, CA. O’Grady led a squad of detectives in pursuit of, “protecting society against the creeping menace of drugs…. Mine was not to reason why addicts took drugs, mine was to bust their asses,” he wrote in his memoir, O’Grady, the Life and Times of Hollywood’s No. 1 Private Eye.   

According to Gavin, O’Grady amassed what some called the biggest narcotics arrest in history in the LAPD history: an estimated 2,500-plus suspected junkies and pushers, many innocent. His main targets were jazz musicians, whom he considered, “the dregs of society.”

In his book, O’Grady bragged, “I set out to destroy that crowd and damn near did…. I ran Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, the great saxophonist, out of town. I could have nailed him. His arms were covered with track marks from heroin needles. But he was too old and too drunk and I decided it wasn’t worth wasting the time nailing Parker just so the City of LA could pay for his keep." In 1955, Parker died of pneumonia, heart failure, liver disease from years of drug abuse. He was 34.

Gavin asserts that also on O’Grady’s hit list of arrest targets were the likes of Stan Getz, Billie Holiday, Lenny Bruce, as well as Mulligan and Baker. “It turned into a plague,” Mulligan is quoted as saying. “O’Grady used to love to come around and bait Chet, and Chet always had a smart rejoinder so this guy was after him.” 

On April 13, 1953, Mulligan, Baker and their wives at the time were in fact busted. While the musicians were plying their trade at the Haig on Wiltshire Boulevard in Hollywood, O’Grady and Hill paid a visit to their home. This was at the height of the revolutionary piano-less quartet’s success. See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2010/jan/29/chet-baker-gerry-mulligan

The account is well documented in Gavin’s book and elsewhere. The detectives didn’t find any hard drugs, only marijuana. They then proceeded to the club and confronted the musicians backstage, ordering them to roll up their sleeves. “Look at that – fresh marks,” O’Grady is reported to have said. At this point, they drove back to the house in search of drugs. Mulligan relented and presented them with the evidence, his works [needles] and a small amount of heroin. 

The headline read: “Hot Lips Bopster, Aide and 2 Wives Jailed; Nab Dope.” Mulligan spent six months in jail at Sheriff’s Honor Farm in Modesto, CA. Baker was spared, but continued to have the hell-hounds of the law on his trail.

Two years onward, Baker had had enough. Gavin: “In 1955, on a trip to Worcester, Massachusetts, Baker and Bill Loughborough, a drum maker who became his lifelong friend, met two gypsies who offered to help cast a spell against O’Grady and Hill …. Trekking into the woods at night, they lit a fire, sat in a circle, and murmured incantations against the policemen while fondling clay dolls with pins stuck in them.”

A word on Loughborough: Commonly known as Bill Love, he passed away on April 7, 2010. He was a cat of many lives and one who resided in and out of the jazz purview. In music he is best known as the co-author, along with David “Buck” Wheat, of “Better Than Anything,” a popular jazz number covered by numerous artists including, Irene Kral, Sheila Jordan, Bob Dorough, and Al Jarreau.

Wheat and Loughborough grew up together in San Antonio, Texas and were also the founders of the Boobam Bamboo Drum Company, and from 1954 to ’55 built instruments for composer Harry Partch. Their instruments were used by several jazz ensembles during this time. A percussionist himself, Loughborough appears on the Pacific Jazz recording, Chet Baker and his Crew, where he is listed as playing chromatic tympani.

A one-time 16 year-old student at MIT, Loughborough was a life-long advocate for the disabled. For more on this fascinating character of America music see: http://www.talkingsigns.com/loughboroughtrib.shtml

For more on Partch see: http://www.harrypartch.com/

The question is: What was Loughborough and Baker doing in Worcester in 1955? The fact that Gavin mentions Loughborough as “a drum maker,” one could assume that the musicians may have been on their way here to visit Walberg & Auge, one of the largest and most prestigious percussion manufactures in the country. See: http://jazzriffing.blogspot.com/2013_03_01_archive.html

Also, the Baker band was touring the East Coast that summer appearing at such places as the Newport Jazz Festival and the Celebrity Club in Providence

The pianist in the band had other reasons to visit Worcester. The Telegram ran this item: “The wedding is announced of Miss Joyce Swenson of Holden to Russ Freeman of Los Angeles, composer and pianist with Chet Baker’s band. They are visiting here, having come from the coast. She is a former instructor at Arthur Murray’s dance studio here.” 

Freeman worked with Baker from the summer of 1953 through August 1955. The pianist is quoted as saying that the trumpeter's heroin use began at the end of 1954. "He started to use right around the time everyone else was stopping. Drugs were going out of fashion. I was also strung out for a time, but I had stopped just when we started the quartet in June of 1953. Chet was also the only guy who continued so long while other junkies either quit or died." 



In 1955, Chet Baker was deep into the throes of junkiedom. Before the year was out, the brilliant young pianist Dick Twardzik, who was touring Europe with the trumpeter, was found dead in Paris. He was 21. A victim of a drug overdose, the death profoundly impacted Baker. Note: Bostonian Peter Littman was by then the drummer in the band.



Pianist Dick Twardzik in action as a ghostly Chet Baker looks on 

As far as the location of the Worcester woods, that remains in question. It could have been anywhere between here and Providence. Along Route 146 is a reasonable guess.

Gypsies? Documented histories of such people who lived or traveled in and around Worcester go back to the 1880s. Or, it could have just been an expression used by Loughborough to describe or conceal the identity of the men.   

Although, in this bizarre midnight ritual Baker was convinced by the performance of the men and the authenticity of their supernatural powers.

“Years later,” the trumpeter claimed that the curse had worked,” Gavin reported, “not only had O’Grady been ejected from the narcotics squad, but Baker heard, had been badly injured by a bottle thrown at his head.” 


Chet Baker at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: chromatic@charter.net. Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com  Thank you.






http://www.gerrymulligan.com/wp-content/files/auto-bio.pdf











Thursday, August 15, 2013

Monk in our sphere

By Chet Williamson

It’s been rumored among local jazz fans for years that the late-great pianist Thelonious Sphere Monk flipped one of his many hats here in Worcester. It was actually in Grafton. 

In 1964, TIME magazine under the headline: Thelonious Monk: “Pretty Butterfly” reported that, “In Boston Thelonious Monk once wandered around the airport until the police picked him up and took him to Grafton State Hospital for a week’s observation. He was quickly released without strings, and the experience persuaded him never to go out on the road alone again.”

Martin Williams further chronicled the incident in Esquire magazine. “In the spring of 1959, he was booked for a week at Boston’s Storyville. He had been up for some three days and nights without sleep. When he arrived, he came to the desk of the Copley Square Hotel, where Storyville is located, with a glass of liquor in his hand after flitting around the lobby rather disconcertingly, examining the walls.”


Storyville was a club inside the Copley. It was first opened in 1950 by the famed impresario and founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, George Wein. The hotel is still there on the corner of Exeter Street and Huntington Ave., Boston. Wein was forced to move the club out of the hotel for a time, only to return in 1953 with Charlie Parker featuring young trumpeter Herb Pomeroy playing its grand opening.

“The room sat just under 200 people, banquet style,” Wein recalled in his memoir, Myself Among Others. Adding, “There wasn’t a bad seat in the house.”

For 10 years -- the club closed in 1960 — everybody who was anybody in jazz at the time, played Storyville, including the great Monk. Here’s how Wein describes him: “Webster’s Dictionary gives eight different definitions of the word ‘genius.’ The one that applies to Thelonious Monk reads, “an exceptional natural capacity of intellect especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc., e.g. the genius of Mozart.’

Charlie Parker and Monk 
"There's no question that Thelonious fits this definition. I believe his schizophrenia kept him from realizing the full potential of his enormous creativity." 

The long feature on Monk in TIME appeared in the February 28, 1964. The piece was written by Barry Farrell and called The Loneliest Monk. In the section titled, “Pretty Butterfly,” he writes, “At the piano, Monk is clearly tending to business, but once he steps away from it, people begin to wonder. Aside from his hat and the incessant shuffle of his feet, he looks like a perfectly normal neurotic. “Solid!” and “All reet!” are about all he will say in the gravelly sigh that serves as his voice, but his friends attribute great spiritual strength to him. Aware of his power over people, Monk is enormously selfish in the use of it. Passive, poutish moods sweep over him as he shuffles about, looking away, a member of the race of strangers.

“Every day is a brand-new pharmaceutical event for Monk: alcohol, Dexedrine, sleeping potions, whatever is at hand, charge through his bloodstream in baffling combinations. 

Predictably, Monk is highly unpredictable. When gay, he is gentle and blithe to such a degree that he takes to dancing on the sidewalks, buying extravagant gifts for anyone who comes to mind, playing his heart out. One day last fall he swept into his brother’s apartment to dance before a full-length mirror so he could admire his collard-leaf boutonniere; he left without a word. “Hey!” he will call out. “Butterflies faster than birds? Must be, ’cause with all the birds on the scene up in my neighborhood, there’s this butterfly, and he flies any way he wanna. Yeah. Black and yellow butterfly. Pretty butterfly.” At such times, he seems a very happy man."

The article was originally scheduled to appear in the November 1963 issue, but was bumped. It was the time of JFK’s assassination.

Farrell writes candidly about Monk’s demons. He continues: “At other times he appears merely mad. He has periods of acute disconnection in which he falls totally mute. He stays up for days on end, prowling around desperately in his rooms, troubling his friends, playing the piano as if jazz were a wearying curse. In Boston Monk once wandered around the airport until the police picked him up and took him to Grafton State Hospital for a week’s observation.

Copley Square, circa 1950s
“Much of the confusion about the state of Monk’s mind is simply the effect of Monkish humor. He has a great reputation in the jazz world as a master of the “put-on,” a mildly cruel art invented by hipsters as a means of toying with squares. Monk is proud of his skill. “When anybody says something that’s a drag,” he says, “I just say something that’s a bigger drag. Ain’t nobody can beat me at it either. I’ve had plenty of practice.” Lately, though, Monk has been more mannerly and conventional.

“He says he hates the ‘mad genius’ legend he has lived with for 20 years, though he’s beginning to wonder politely about the ‘genius’ part. By his own admission, Wein had little recollection of the musical comings and goings at Storyville in the late 1950s. Between his trips to Europe and increasing festival responsibilities, he was just too busy.


“But I remember well the Storyville debut of the Thelonious Monk quartet in the spring of 1959,” he says. “I had worked with Monk at Newport in 1955 and 1958, but had no personal relationship at this time. So I didn’t know what to make of it when Thelonious came to Boston in an agitated state.”
Though he doesn’t name the personnel, the quartet in ’59 was most likely saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop. By the way, check out footage of Monk’s performance in the film, Jazz on a Summer’s DaySee: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vn2kLBedk_o

Picking up the story at Storyville, Wein says, “I wasn’t there when he arrived at the Copley Square Hotel and was refused a room; he had alarmed the hotel staff by scrutinizing the lobby walls, with a glass of liquor in one hand.

“The first set that night was scheduled for 8 o’clock. Thelonious didn’t show up until 10. The fact that the audience stayed put for two solid hours without complaint amazed me. They had such love for the music of Monk that they were willing to sit patiently, even though it was entirely possible that their man might not even make the gig.”

Williams reports that after Monk was refused a room, he declined to take another at the Hotel Bostonian where his sidemen were staying. In his account of the 10 o’clock arrival, Williams states, “The room was nearly full of expectant but patient people. He played two numbers, and came off. At 11:30 p.m., he played the same two numbers, sat motionless at the piano for what seemed like half an hour. His bewildered sidemen had left the stand after about eight minutes.”


Here’s Wein’s account: “When Thelonious did arrive, he went straight to the bandstand, where his sidemen were waiting. He played two songs, then walked off and wandered aimlessly around the room, picking imaginary flies off the walls. The audience watched him in silent bewilderment. I got him to return to the stage at 11:30, and he played the same two songs again. Then he sat at the piano without moving for some time. His bandmates eventually left the stand. I had no idea what to do. I had tried talking to Monk, with no response. After what seemed to be an eternity, Thelonious stood up from the piano, shuffled around for a few minutes, and left the club."

George Wein 












Williams says Monk was obviously disturbed about the hotel situation. He finally registered at the Bostonian, but didn’t like the room and left. He then tried the Statler but was refused a room so he took a cab to the airport. “Planes, however, were no longer running, and he was picked up by a state trooper to whom he would not or could not communicate,” Williams says.

Monk finally revealed who he was, but it was too late. The trooper took him to Grafton State Hospital for observation. 

Grafton State Hospital
Grafton State Hospital was first opened in 1901 as a farm colony of the Insane Hospital in Worcester. In 1912 it separated from Worcester to become its own entity. The patient population hit its peak in 1952 with 23,000 people. It closed in 1973. The Mental Health Commissioner Milton Greenblatt at the time said the decision to close the Grafton facility, which had more than 1,000 acres of land and 50 buildings, was due to the deteriorating condition of the physical plant. He also said that “our hospitals still have too many in-patients who could be out-patients if supporting services were available to them. Massachusetts cannot afford the human or financial costs of institutionalizing people who would be better off at home.”


These days the state-own land is the home of the Tufts University Veterinary School and a variety of social agencies. There are also more than 1,000 nameless grave sites on the property.

Wein says when Monk was picked up by police and taken to the hospital, he knew nothing of it, “however, when I called both his manager, Harry Colomby, and Nellie Monk [wife] the following morning to ask whether Monk had gone back to New York, they realized that his whereabouts where unknown and they grew frantic. Harry hired a private detective, who questioned Boston’s Finest (but not the state police).”

“He was lost there for a week,” Williams says. “No one knew what had happened to him. The local Boston police were checked, but no one thought of trying the state police. A letter the hospital claims it sent to Nellie Monk never arrived. By accident, an acquaintance in Boston heard mention of Monk’s whereabouts on a local TV show. Nellie rushed to Massachusetts and secured his release. There had been no grounds on which he could be held. “It was the combination,” a friend later speculated, “of exhaustion after several days without sleep and the fact that he disconnected at first, and that he was away from New York and Nellie.”

Nellie and Thelonious
In typical Monkian eccentricity, the composer turned the episode around and used it as a certification of his sanity. “I can’t be crazy,” he said with conviction, “cause they had me in one of those places and they let me go.” 

Monk died on February 17, 1982. His life, in all of its ugly/beauty, mysterious/majesty, and tortured/brilliance, is there in the music. Listen.    

·        Sections of this article first appeared in Worcester Magazine.

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: chromatic@charter.net. Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com  Thank you.


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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: http://www.thatcorp.com/

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 at: chromatic@charter.net. Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com  Thank you.