Jazz In Boston in The ’60’s

When I rolled into Boston in the fall of ’64, I had no clue. I mean, NO clue whatsoever. Got off the train, walked around with my suitcases in the rain for an hour, until I found that the school was only about 8 blocks from the train station. Only the foyer in the school was open, a big bulletin board in the walkway, with about 50 posts stuck to it, mostly looking for roommates and apartments, as Berklee back then only had one dorm building, and it was already full of guitar players… guitar players who were at Berklee mostly to stay out of the draft and the Viet Nam War.

The Boston WMCA


One of the posts on the board was the address of the YMCA, another 12 blocks away from the school. I found my way over there in the rain and got settled in for my first night in Boston. Next day I dropped by the school, hoping to hook up with a roommate, but no one was around yet, so I found a cheap place to eat, bought a small clock radio before spending the next 3 days trying to find a place to live, and the next 3 nights in that rock-hard bed, listening to a jazz station I’d found on the small radio. I can still feel myself there, so vividly, lying in that bed at night, window open, hearing the night city sounds, hearing the sweet jazz coming from the tiny radio, the heat still sweltering (to me…) being early Sept. in Boston. I had no idea if any of this was going to work, didn’t know how it could work, only knew that I was within blocks of the school that could teach me what I so desperately wanted to
know about music, and to finally really know if I had what it took, or if I would be drummed out. I felt alone, of course, but not that panicky, alone feeling I got back in Missoula several times. I was there because of the music, because of my love for it, and there was something inside me that believed I could actually make this work.

Front Door Of Old Berklee

My fifth day in Boston I found a roommate, Dick Dodge, who was from Kansas. Poor Dick… if anything, he was a cornier would-be jazz musician than I was. He wanted to compose jazz and teach, but instead taught me what “square” was. He had a two-room apartment on Newbury sStreet and we were a good match for about three months. By thenI found a hipper roomie who got me into the swing of Boston and Berklee. But Dick Dodge got me started, and I owe him that.

Just two blocks away on the corner was a 24/7 cafe called Hayes-Bickford. A greasy spoon for sure, but at the end of some of those late-night homework sessions, ( and later, gigs ) it was a handy place to stop late at night for a toasted English muffin and a “coffee regular.” I probably stopped in there 100 times in a four-year period. There was always some nondescript-looking guy working the counter, and I remember always feeling sorry for him. What a life, working a luncheon counter in a big city at 3 a.m. Depressed the hell out of me sometimes.

Now the phrase “I’m hip” caught on in the ’60’s much like “like” is now. It began in the 50’s as “I’m hep,” but soon “hep” became “unhip” and hip was the thing. Loosely translated, “I’m hip” means “I understand,” “I agree,” “I know that already,” all in a two-word phrase that means “I get it.” I must have said “I’m hip” at least ten thousand times in a five-year period. I’m pretty sure that “I’m hip” finally fell from grace sometime in the late ’70’s, but longevity, for the moment anyway, has to go to “man.”

The story I get was that the black guys got good and sick of being called “boy” by the white racists, so they decided to begin addressing each other as “man.” Boy, did “man” catch on! Soon the white musicians jumped on it and then white folk who wished they were musicians, or even just hep, started calling each other “man.” Plus, it was an easy out if you didn’t remember his name. “Hey man, what’s happenin’” has to be right up there with “Hi, how ya doin’?” Of course if you were a jazz musician, all that got old and one had to greet another with, “What’s shakin’, Baby Cakes?”



 

 

 

                  Reid & Billy Hill, back in the day…

 

Reid, today

I learned to speak “jazz” from a good friend and fine drummer in Boston, Reid Jorgensen, who also introduced me to The Pioneer Club, a private after-hours jazz place in the African American part of town. The bartender at the Pioneer was Jumper, a super-cool guy who was always on top of everything. Once we “cleared customs” with Bobby Jones and got inside, we nearly always had a drink at the bar downstairs with Jumper. He was a case, always up, always with a good story in his gravel voice… talked so fast I thought at first it was a different language. We would belly up and Reid would say, “Hey, Jump-Jump, what’s happenin’, man?” And Jumper would come back with, “Hey, Reido, what you got goin’ tonight, baby? Got your man Stevie with you? This gonna be trouble, I mean…” Jumper was also the first person I can remember to greet us with, “What’s shakin’, Baby Cakes?”


Jumper’s Business Card – Mixologist!

I loved the Pioneer Club, loved being accepted there. I even went down there a few times by myself, just to prove they’d let me in without Reid, which they did. After a drink with Jumper, we’d go upstairs where the music was happening. Occasionally there would be two or three guys playing, in which case we’d have another drink, wait awhile, maybe sit in with them. But usually a fine bass player, Billy Hill, would be up there, waiting for us. We’d fire up together and it would be heaven! Billy was a mailman by day, and a brilliant jazz bassist by night. He’d stay with us sometimes ’til 4 a.m., just playing and being in a groove. Billy was the first bass player I worked with who always grabbed his bow for his solos… and it was always delicious!

When the crowd upstairs enjoyed us, we played ’til 4, when they brought out the fried chicken and potato salad. We would sit down in this big, round table/booth in the corner of the room with our friends – everyone there was black, except Reid and me, and we’d talk music and life and how good the chicken was. Upon doing some research as to the history of the Pioneer Club, or “the Pi,” as we called it, I found this, written by Richard Vacca.

“The room upstairs seated perhaps 50, with a small stage and an upright piano, which Duke Ellington once played all night. Jazz was an integral part of the Pioneer, and there were some fine house pianists over the years, like Highland Diggs, George “Fingers” Pearson, and Mabel Simms. The jazz musicians and singers who were in town all stopped by to relax, and sometimes to play. Art Tatum took his turn at that piano, as did Nat Cole, Count Basie, and Miles Davis. A long list of musicians and singers graced that tiny stage.”   Read more of the Pioneer’s history here – https://www.troystreet.com/tspots/2013/02/24/on-february-24-1960/

My favorite time of the night/morning was always when the cook, Berthed, came out of the kitchen to see how we were all doing. Berthel somehow chose me as one of her favorites. She would sit down by me, put her hand on my cheek and softly say, “Hey Baby, how you feelin’ tonight? I heard you from the kitchen, you sounding fine!” I would give her a big hug, and, for a little while, I was home.

Steve Hulse