Monday, January 13, 2014

Summertime and the Worcester Account

By Chet Williamson 

He was one of Worcester’s finest writers and close friends with America’s most popular composer. S.N. Behrman was the scribe. George Gershwin was the tunesmith.

According to accompanying notes to his early biography, The Worcester Account, the writer was born Samuel Nathaniel Behrman (1893-1973), “the son of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts and grew up in a triple-decker at #31 Providence Street. His father was a grocer and a Talmudic scholar who taught Hebrew to neighborhood children. In Worcester, Behrman attended Providence Street School, Classical High School, and Clark University.”

The writer earned degrees from Harvard and Columbia before embarking on a prolific and successful writing career that produced 30 plays, six books of fiction and non-fiction, more than 20 filmscripts, and countless newspaper and magazine articles.

Here’s the writer from The Worcester Account: “We lived, when I was a child and until I left Worcester, in a triple-decker tenement a quarter way up the long hill that was Providence Street. The street belonged to a few Irish, to a few Poles, and to us... . These triple-deckers, which straggled up our hill, were mostly sadly in need of paint jobs and their mass appearance was somewhat depressing. But in the many other respects they were not so bad. They had balconies, front and back, which we called piazzas.

The yards in the back had fruit trees – cherry and pear and apple. … Once, standing on our back piazza, I overheard my young cousin, then about eleven – my family, including my grandmother and two aunts, occupied three of the six flats at 31 – improvising an ode to one of the blossoming pear trees: ‘Oh, you elegant tree!’ she began. But then she caught my eye and the rhapsody was aborted. The contemplative and withdrawn could sit on the back piazzas and look at the fruit trees; the urban and the worldly could sit on the front piazza and survey the passing scene.”

Water Street, Worcester

Gershwin biographies are many. He was born in Brooklyn, New York on September 26, 1898, the second son of Russian immigrants. The 5-cent take on Gershwin's life is that he dropped out of school at the age of 15 to become a piano-playing song-plugger on Tin Pan Alley. According to biography.com, “Within a few years, he was one of the most sought after musicians in America. A composer of jazz, opera and popular songs for stage and screen, many of his works are now standards. Gershwin died immediately following brain surgery on July 11, 1937, at the age 38.”

Gershwin often spoke of the melting-pot-ideal of America. In 1927 he was quoted as saying, “Wherever I went I heard a concourse of sounds. Many of them were not audible to my companions, for I was hearing them in memory. Strains from the latest concert, the cracked tones of a hurdy-gurdy, the wail of a street singer to the obligato of a broken violin, past or present music, I was hearing within me. Old music and new music, forgotten melodies and the craze of the moments, bits of opera, Russian folk songs, Spanish ballads, chansons, ragtime ditties, combined in an inner chorus in my inner ear. And through and over it all, faint at first, loud and fast, the soul of this great America of ours.”

In the early part of the 20th century jazz was very much a part of that equation and Gershwin loved the music. “There had been so much chatter about the limitations of jazz,” he said in the wake of his masterpiece, Rhapsody in Blue, which opened the doors of concert halls to popular music. “I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow. … No set plan was in my mind – no structure to which my music would conform. The rhapsody, as you see, began as a purpose, not as a plan.”

For more on Gershwin’s life see: www.biography.com/people/george-gershwin-9309643

Behrman first met Gershwin when the two men were both in their early twenties. David Ewen, in his book George Gershwin; His Journey to Greatness, states: “Among the new faces in the Gershwin circle in the early 1920s was S.N. Behrman – “Bernie” to his friends – who, in 1923, was writing for The New York Times Book Review and various magazines.

The Gershwin circle of friends. The composer is front and center. The writer is top and center.  

Behrman had been initiated into the theater in his youth when he appeared in a vaudeville sketch of his own writing. But it was not until 1927 that he emerged as a leading playwright of social comedy when the Theater Guild produced The Second Man. Thus Behrman and Gershwin – who were introduced to each other by Samuel Chotzinoff – became friends before either were famous. As each progressed from one triumph to another, each remained close to the other.”

Behrman wrote about his friend on several occasions. First was the writer’s debut as a “Profile” columnist for The New Yorker. The piece is called “Troubadour,” originally published in the May 25, 1929 edition of the magazine.

Among the many facts, insights, and tales Behrman relates to readers about his friend is his piano playing: “Because I have no authority to write about music, I have spoken with circumspection of Gershwin's achievements as a composer. I come now to a side of his talent of which I can speak because I have been under its spell—his immediate talent as a pianist, as an interpreter of his own songs.

Josef Hofmann says of Gershwin that he has 'a fine pianistic talent . . . firm, clear . . . good command over the keyboard.' To the layman it seems a positive domination. You get the sense of a complete mastery, a complete authority—the most satisfactory feeling any artist can give you. When he sits at the piano and plays his own songs in a roomful of people, the effect that he evokes is extraordinary. I have seen Kreisler, Zimbalist, Auer, and Heifetz caught up in the heady surf that inundates a room the moment he strikes a chord. It is a feat not only of technique but of sheer virtuosity of personality.”


Behrman wrote more extensively about Gershwin in his book, People in a Diary; A Memoir. In the chapter, “The Gershwin Years,” he expounds on the piano playing, saying, “I have read numberless pages of musical analysis of Gershwin songs and his more ambitious writings by experts – ‘diminished sevenths,’ ‘tonic triads,’ ‘broken chords.’

I don’t understand any of it as I know nothing about music. Gershwin’s originality, they all agree, came from his intuition for the dramatic and the colloquial. But when I first heard him, and subsequently, I found that I had an intuition of my own – as a listener. I felt on the instant, when he sat down to play, the newness, the humor, above all the rush of the great heady surf of vitality. The room became freshly oxygenated; everybody felt it, everybody breathed it.”

In that same chapter, Behrman covers all things Gershwin, including, the man, the pianist, the composer, friendship, psychoanalysis, his brother, Ira; family, death and his legacy. “Thinking back on George’s career now,” he recalls, “I see that he lived all his life in youth. He was thirty-nine when he died. He was given no time for the middle years, for the era when you look back, when you reflect, when you regret. His rhythms were the pulsations of youth; he reanimated them in those much older than he was. He reanimates them still.”

Behrman never collaborated with Gershwin. He did however use one of the composer’s tunes in the play about his friend and the lost generation of the youth. The tune is called, “Hi-Ho,” an obscure song that Gershwin first introduced in the musical, Shall We Dance, but was cut.

According to Walter Rimler, “The song was first heard publicly in the late 1940s in an S.N. Behrman play, Let Me Hear the Melody, which was based on the author's memories of George Gershwin and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the play and the song went nowhere. Publication did not come until 1967, when the composition was made part of an exhibition of Gershwin works at the Museum of the City of New York.”



The song has since been recorded by Tony Bennett. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlzGyD3xBgI

It is not known whether or not Gershwin and Behrman were ever in this city at the same time. Gershwin did appear in town at the Worcester Memorial Auditorium with singer James Melton and the Leo Reisman Orchestra on Tuesday, January 16, 1934. 





The concert was reviewed by Dorothy Boyd Mattison for the Worcester Daily Telegram. “Chief attention doubtless centered upon Mr. Gershwin’s playing of his own ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ for which the current tour marks the 10th anniversary of its composition, his ‘Concerto in F,’ which opened the program, and his tone poem, ‘An American in Paris.’






Probably the most delightful moment of the program came at the very end when Mr. Melton and Mr. Gershwin, tossing aside the final scheduled number, ‘Wintergreen for President,’ and silencing the orchestra, got together at the piano. Mr. Gershwin played and Mr. Melton sang ‘Of Thee I Sing’ and a number from Mr. Gershwin’s ‘Oh, Kay!’ The informal, parlor-like atmosphere lent zest to the evening, and brought it to a beautiful climax.”

Behrman noted that after Gershwin died fellow friend, Fred Astaire said, “He wrote for feet.” The writer adds, “A Gershwin tune has a propulsive effect still, all over the world. 

He was perpetually in pursuit of new horizons; he was ambitious to write serious music. In youth there is always time for everything; we all aged; George remained young. His own tempo was as propulsive as those of his songs …."


Reflecting and ruminating further about his friend in his memoir, Behrman writes: “One can never know the truth about anyone – what their inmost motivations and feelings are, but George’s life was lived so out-of-doors, so in the public eye, and these activities so absorbed him that he was always ‘too busy,’ he said, for introspective agonies. 

"He told me once that he wanted to write for young girls sitting on fire escapes on hot summer nights in New York and dreaming of love. His memory is of a golden youth, of a young man who in a short time won all the rewards of acknowledged genius.”

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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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.


MAMIE MOFFITT 

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





EINAR SWAN 

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: https://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=532195&fileOId=625282



WENDELL CULLEY 


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: http://www.jazzhistorydatabase.com/content/musicians/culley_wendell/bio.php


IRVING PESKIN 

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. 

See:


PAUL CLEMENTE

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 www.jazzhistorydatabase.com “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. 


WORCESTERITES 

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: chromatic@charter.net. Also see:www.worcestersongs.blogspot.comThank you.


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