Thursday, January 2, 2014

When Jazz Happened Here; The Birth of the Music in Worcester

By Chet Williamson

First Regiment Uniformed Rank Knights of Pythias Band, Worcester, 1880s
Jazz, like all genres of music did not spring forth from its womb fully formed. It is a product of many sources and negotiations. It is a gumbo -- a melting pot of sound -- derived from a variety of cultures, clashes, and climes.

Historians report that it was born at the dawn of the 20th century and it is the culmination of African and Caribbean rhythms, Ragtime, the marching music of brass bands, European art songs and arias, and, the blues. Improvisation is at its core. And, today, it is universally recognized as a uniquely American art form.

Main Street, across from City Hall, 1906

Trying to find the original wellspring of the music however, has always been an elusive chase. It is like trying to locate an ocean’s first raindrop. Here in Worcester, undoubtedly the first strains of jazz were carried to New England by records, radio, and touring musicians.

As Ken Burns correctly chronicled in his PBS series on the music: “Jazz had been born in New Orleans and brought up in Chicago and New York, but by the mid-1920s, it was being played in dance halls and speakeasies everywhere.” For example, see The Journal of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Volume 23, that reported, “the Annual Alumni Banquet of Epsilon Deuteron Chapter of the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity was held at the State Mutual Restaurant, Saturday evening May 5, 1920. Fifty five members of the active chapter and thirty-five alumni gathered for the occasion. The Phi Sigma Kappa jazz orchestra furnished its usual high class entertainment.”

Identifying local musicians who embraced the new music before the Jazz Age arrived, however, is much more daunting. It is not until the 1920s do we begin to see advertisements for Worcester bands and musicians playing “Hot Jazz.” Some of the earliest practitioners of the improvisation art include local musicians who would leave town and become prominent players on the national scene. Their names are Einar Swan (1903), Wendell Cully (1906), Irving Peskin (1908), and Paul Clement (1910), as well as others who called Worcester home.


Though born in New Bedford in 1884, Mamie Moffitt is an important figure in Worcester jazz history. According to Prof. Rich Falco, director of Jazz Studies at WPI, Moffitt assembled the first professional jazz ensemble in Worcester. The dates are “sometime before 1922.” The band is called Mamie Moffitt and Her 5 Jazz-Hounds. Members of the group included Moffitt (piano), her husband Wallace Moffitt (cornet), his brother Alfred Moffitt (saxophone), Alfred's nephew Harold Black (violin and banjo), Boots Ward (drums) and John Byard (trombone), the father of Jaki Byard.

Occasionally Wendell Culley (trumpet) played with this group,” Falco wrote. “Unfortunately, no recordings exist of this earliest of Central MA jazz groups. Through interviews with those who heard this ensemble, it is clear that they played the "hot" music of the period with outstanding improvisations and professional arrangements.”

Falco added that due to health reasons, Moffitt led the band until about 1928, at which time her drummer, Boots Ward, formed his own group, the Nite Hawks, which featured three members of Moffitt's 5 Jazz-Hounds: Ward, Black and Byard. The group would later be taken over by Ray Schuyler and later, Freddie Bates.

Falco also noted that in 1929, while still under the direction of Boots Ward, two "young lions" of the Worcester jazz scene were asked to join the Nite Hawks. They were 16 year-old trumpeter Elwood "Barney" Price, and 15 year-old saxophonist Howard "Howie" Jefferson, both would remain with the Nite Hawks for 10 years.

A young high school student, Jaki Byard, began writing his first arrangements at this time and these were used by the Nite Hawks while it was directed by Freddie Bates. Jaki Byard also began playing piano on occasion with the Nite Hawks,” Falco said.

Freddie Bates and the Nite-Hawks


One of the first Worcester-born players to rise to national prominence was Einar Swan, a child prodigy who played a parade of different instruments and best known as the author of the jazz standard, “When Your Lover Has Gone.”

Swan was born in Fitchburg, but grew up in Worcester where he graduated from Commerce High School. He was interviewed by the Telegram & Gazette at the time and is quoted as saying, “Jazz is coming and perfectly legitimate development of modern music. All musicians are turning to it, some more, some less. The modern way of syncopating the classics is extremely popular and is bringing the best things in music to the people who never hear them before. Jazz is now firmly established, the music of the future, and already has become classic in a certain way; the only difference being that it is more alive than the older type of music.”

Swan (front row holding sax) and his Serenaders
After graduating from high school, Swan formed the Swanie Serenaders affording him the opportunity to “play his own kind of music.” Organized in Worcester in 1922, the group featured among others pianist Sam Swenson, drummer Ernest Paul,  violinist Julius Levinsky, banjo player Joe Toscano, trumpeter Billy Conn, trombonist Oscar Werme, and its leader Swan who doubled on all reeds. Werme would later switch to the tuba and join Paul Whiteman’s Leviathan Orchestra.
In his short lifetime – he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 37 – he played with such legendary figures as the Dorsey Brothers, Vincent Lopez, Red Nichols, and Xavier Cugat.

For more on Swan, see: Sven Bjerstedt’s masteful biography at:


Trumpeter Wendell Culley also graduated from Commerce, where he was a classmate of Swan’s younger sister Aida. Cully’s dream was to be the first black trumpet to play in an American symphony. His dream was deferred not out of ability, but race. He was denied entrĂ© because of his skin color. Jazz became the alternative.
While still in high school, Culley would play both music while in pursuit of orchestral aspirations. He played in both the school orchestra and stage band, as well as soloist at A.M.E. Zion Church. In 1924 he was given the superlative of “class musician.” As mentioned, who performed with Mamie Moffitt and Her 5 Jazz-Hounds, and after leaving high school set out to work professionally in Boston and New York, eventually working in the best bands of the era – the century for that matter, including Noble Sissle, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, and Count Basie, among others.

His distinctive solos can be heard on such seminal jazz recordings as “Lil’ Darlin’,” (Basie), “Minnie the Moocher,” (Calloway), and “Evil Gal Blues (Dinah Washington). 

For more on Culley, See:


Cornetist Irving Peskin is another early Worcester luminary. Born in Worcester in 1908, he was bitten by the jazz bug after hearing Bix Beiderbecke play on the radio. “We had crystal sets,” he said. “We were little kids. That was the big thing around Worcester. We used to get stations from New York and all over the place. We were tuned in listening to everything.”

Peskin went to Classical High School. At 15, he shared the first cornet chair in the school orchestra. At 16, he left school to play music full-time. “I actually hardly finished high school,” Peskin said. “I made it a point of going back. I came back from New York, put in a few months, and got a high school diploma.”

While still in school, Peskin began studying with Georges Mager, principal trumpet with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He organized his first band in 1922 with the help of his saxophone playing brother Charles. The band played social gigs from Worcester to Boston, where he gained entrance to greater opportunity. There, the cornetist was seen by other bandleaders who recognized and enlisted his talent. The rest is a storied career that took him from studio work in New York (including on some of Thomas Edison’s first recordings), to session work in Hollywood. 



The eldest son of Italian immigrants Matteo Clemente and Raffaella (Tomaiolo) Clemente, Paul Clemente was born on January 19, 1910. “His first instrument was violin, but eventually he gravitated toward the ukulele at an early age,” wrote Falco for the “He later settled on banjo and guitar as his preferred instruments. For his young son Paul, Matteo Clemente was able to arrange banjo lessons with another member of the Italian community, Joe Tuscano.

Later, Paul began a serious course of study on the guitar with Cosmo Lomatieri (known as Ned Cosmo), a well known Central MA musician who played with a “society band,” called Ed Murphy and his Bohemians in the 1920’s. Paul’s father, Matteo, owned a small Italian restaurant called The Vesuvio in which there was a jukebox, which contained the latest recordings of Louis Armstrong, Joe Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Bix Beiderbecke as well as other Dixieland style ensembles.”
Clem's Commodores, Clement at far left

Falco also noted that “Paul, and his younger brother Pete, also a guitarist, transcribed and memorized many jazz solos by Django Reinhardt, Eddie Lang, Louis Armstrong, and many others by repeatedly playing these newly released recordings. Both Paul and Pete would entertain customers in the restaurant, giving the two aspiring young musicians an outlet for their music with the blessing of their father.”

In 1927, Paul Clemente formed his own group which he called “Clem’s Commodores” with John Lescoe (coronet), Leo Quercio (alto saxophone), Paul Mandella (piano), Joe Nuzzolillo (drums), and Paul himself on banjo, guitar and vocals. “Paul was completely taken with Louis Armstrong and wholly embraced his approach to rhythm and relaxed, lyrical improvisation,” Falco said.

Clem’s Commodores, which played primarily the new “hot jazz”, worked all the local nightclubs of the period. In the early 1930s, Clemente, now called Paul Clement, joined the Dud Goldman Band and from 1933-’35, he played in the Hughie Connor Band. By 1935, Clemente began working his way out of Worcester, eventually playing in New York and later New Orleans. Billed as the Paul Clement Trio, the string-player signed with the William Morris Agency and recorded sides for the Crystal Tone Label. 


These exceptional artists are the few who rose to national prominence playing jazz out of Worcester. However, there were countless others who chose to remain in the city and play in our midst. Reaching back to the 1920s, their names are carried along by bandmates, family members, and local legend. Though not famous, they are not lost and their contributions to the development of jazz in Worcester, should be recognized and never forgotten.

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at:  Also see:www.worcestersongs.blogspot.comThank you.



  1. Well done. You mentioned that Paul Clemente took lessons from "Ned Cosmo". Was Ned connected to the Club Cosmo in North Grafton that was still active in the late 50's?

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I know of Ned Cosmo, but I don't know of the connection to the club. I remember the Club Cosmo, even went to a show there once. I'll have to dig into it. Thanks for the tip and regards.

  3. Chet,

    I love how you have dug deeply to pull out the nuggets of the music/jazz beginnings of Worcester. Thank you for your work and the gift to share it so eloquently.


  4. Hello,
    Wonderful blog post! I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about the Knights of Pythias Brass Band or could guide me in the right direction as to where you found the picture/any more info about them?

    Thank you


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