Monthly Archives: March 2014

Getting to know you, Alan Dawson – From the Jazz Report of 1990

jazz logo  They say it was the coldest December ever recorded and that day I hurried from the driveway to Alan Dawson’s front door, hearing the snow crunch underfoot. He greeted me with his characteristic smile. Inside the house –like the man- was warm, gracious and comfortable. There was even a touch of spring, with luscious green plants hanging amid the Christmas decorations. I forgot about the cold as Alan’s words took me to another time.

Alan Dawson

Alan Dawson
photograph by Ruth Williams

“Well, it’s hard for me to remember exactly when I got interested in music, but it all had to do with my family. Music was around me all the time. Like most people of that era we had a piano in the parlor – a very nice one, as I remember.  My father had never been a professional musician, but he loved music; he played the guitar and some piano and my mother and sister played piano, too. So I was in an environment of music.

As for drums, that dates back to about age five. Next to the voice drums are probably the most natural instrument to express whatever creativity you have – thorough knives, forks, spoons, chair rungs and whatever. But I didn’t get my first drum until I was 12. I was always buying drumsticks in the pawn shops, though. I used to get them for about 15 cents a pair as opposed to 25 cents in a music store. And I would beat on whatever I could find.

When I got that real drum, I improvised and made a funny little thing, a kind of high-hat, from an old ashtray and a wooden stand. And I started playing with the records. Mostly Count Basie, 99% Count Basie. Trying to duplicate that great sound Joe Jones got off his hi-hats. One summer I got a little job cleaning up a camp and managed to save enough money to buy a real hi-hat. I was starting get serious – I had a hi-hat and a snare drum

My first job was on New Year’s Eve in 1943 with Tasker Crosson. And the reason I got the job was because I had a hi-hat. They wanted my hi-hat and I came with it. I wasn’t going to let it out of my sight. Actually I only played one tune on the gig. Of course, I had been practicing lots of fast things and I couldn’t wait. I was sitting up there just begging to play something fast. So what do you think they played –a ballad! I never had a pair of brushes in my hand and I didn’t know what to do. I really stunk.

But I guess Tasker saw some potential, because he hired me a couple of months later to work with him two nights a week. Tuesdays and Saturdays at the USO on Ruggles Street in Boston. Fortunately he had a bass drum and a much better snare than I had. We used to keep them both down underneath the stage – in a little enclosure with a door. So that’s how my first gig came about and I didn’t even own a drum set.

About the drummers who influenced me? Definitely Joe Jones. No question about that. When I started playing I was attempting to copy him. A whole lot of people say “Hey, don’t copy this one.” Well, at that point, the greatest thing I could have done was to try and copy him. There was no danger whatsoever of my sounding just like him. But in the process I had an excellent role model. And when I saw him at the RKO Boston in ’41, I really flipped out. The cross handed type of thing he did was amazing. I was also influenced by Roy Haynes who was probably the most influential drummer to come out of Boston until Tony Williams. And certainly by a fellow named Bobby Donaldson whom I had only seen play once back in 1941, but he had a tremendous impact on me.

Back then, I was too young to go into clubs, but I used to stand outside the door. I used to listen to Joe Booker with Sabby Lewis’ band until the doorman would shoo me away. But my real influence was Joe Jones. Just listening to the records and playing with them. It’s a wonderful way to practice though I never considered it practice. It was recreation for me. I loved it. I would do that sometimes for eight hours nonstop.

By the time I got out of high school, I had four years of professional playing and I thought I was pretty hot, you know. But a good friend of mine, a drummer named Marquis Foster, persuaded me to study with Charles Alden. I stayed with Charlie for four years, right up to the time I was drafted into the army.

And it’s a good thing that I had done some studying. For all I know it might have saved my life. I got into the army band. There were a number of other players, good ones, too, who couldn’t read music and most of them wound up in the infantry.

Fort Dix where I was stationed had two bands: a black band, the 173rd and a white band, the 9th division band. They had just integrated the army in general but the bands were the last thing to integrate. While I was in basic training word got around about me, thanks to Andy McGhee, and I started doing gigs with the band. That made basic training a lot easier. Occasionally the sergeant from the band would come around and say: ‘We need Private Dawson for a gig’ and I would be excused from some hike or exercise.

In 1952 they finally integrated the bands and I was sent up to the 9th division band. When I got up there, I was promoted to private first class, living the life of Riley with a semi-private room. And that band traveled! We went to New York every Monday to do a TV show. That meant if you were out on the weekend, you could go straight to New York. And after the gig, you could hang out and catch a set at Birdland. The next morning you were allowed to sleep late. Pretty good.

Two or three days before I was due to be discharged, we did a parade in Atlantic City and I ran into Andy McGhee and a drummer buddy of mine, Clarence Johnston. “Hey man, you’re just the guy I’m looking for. Lionel Hampton asked me to go with him and I don’t want to go. You got eyes?’ and I said ‘Yeah.’ So that was it. Two days after my discharge I joined Lionel’s band and thereby hangs another tale.

In retrospect it was the best thing that ever happened to me. There were some things I didn’t like, and I’ve talked about them before. But it was a heck of an environment to be in: with players like Clifford Brown, Jimmy Cleveland, Gigi Gryce, Monk Montgomery, Annie Ross and Quincy Jones. It also gave me recognition outside of the local scene and opened up many things for me. Like a chance to do some recording. And I even would up in the Encyclopedia of Jazz.

Except for my tour with Lionel, I never left Boston for any length of time. I’ve always done pretty well here. At the time I was coming up there were places to play seven nights a week and Sunday afternoon. You had a relatively good scale of living, especially for a young person. So I could survive as a performer. But it’s kind of difficult now. Who plays seven nights a week in one place now?

I also don’t like the road, period. Afar being out with Lionel all the time, I came back here as the conquering hero –so I thought. One of the first people I ran into was my old buddy, Albie Pickney. Well, he had been working days and doing gigs and he had a brand new car. I had been living very frugally and had managed to save half my pay – about $1,500 which ws pretty good money in 1953. But I thought, ‘here’s a person who stays in one place, he’s got a stable rent, not paying hotel bills all the time and he can eat at home.’ I was getting disillusioned about the “big time”.

Of course, today, it’s difficult to make it unless you travel around a lot. There are more musicians and fewer places with the potential of a steady gig. Even in New York, most of the people who live there have to travel. New York is the place to be in order to get the connections so that you can leave. It’s kind of rough.

What I’d love to do now are more big band things. I haven’t had as much opportunity to do that especially recently. I was with Herb Pomeroy’s big band for about three years and that was really a ball. There’s more of everything in a big band –more dynamics. A definite growth happens and you become a much better small group drummer, too.

About bass players….there was a time I could name the good local players on one hand and have three fingers left over. But now we have a lot of good bass players: White Browne, John Lockwood, Marshall Wood. And Ron McWhorter. On the national scene I certainly like the Judge, Milt Hinton. One of my all-time favorites was George DuVivier. Ray Brown of course. And I have to mention Monk Montgomery, one of my all-time favorites. I love his playing and his whole philosophy.

Today young players don’t have the opportunities I had. On the one hand there are really good music schools. turning out many good musicians. But the chances to utilize what they learned seem to be diminishing. As for big band experience, I don’t know how they are going to get it. What I call ‘the dead band leader’ bands are still going but the leaders of these bands are gone. Basie, Duke, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich. And there are only a few other big bands: Toshiko, Maynard, Bob Florence, Gerald Wilson, Mel Lewis, Frankie Clapp and Nat Pierce.

The future? – well I don’t know. Most people that came up with me, who are around my age group – from 45 to 75, if they are still in music today, they are also teaching. You have to do something else besides playing if you want to stay in this area.

In general, Boston is a wonderful place for musicians getting it together, to grow musically. There a lot of good music on the radio: WBUR, Tony Cennamo, James Isaac, Ron Della Chiesa, Eric (Jackson) WERS and the Harvard station. And there are places for people to play, but they can’t make any money. But when it comes to getting into the profession of playing music, well, you have to go someplace else.”

It was getting dark and Alan got up to turn on the Christmas lights. I noticed a young woman, a student, walking down the driveway – time for me to leave. On my way home I mused about what a fine teacher Alan is. He gives his students much more than technique; they learn love and respect for the music and understand the dedication it takes to be a great musician.

Alan Dawson died in 1996 at the age of 66. It was an honor to know him.

1993 had just about everything – a black out, Thelonious Monk, a swing band, and an evening of tap

jazz logo  Money continued to be an issue every year,  even though Highland Jazz consistently received a grant from the Newton Cultural Council. To ensure some stability I decided to offer a yearly membership; this was not a new concept but one I borrowed from the Hartford Jazz Society. Dues were either $10 for a single person or $18 for a couple. With membership came a $1.00 discount on tickets for all concerts. It was in fact a tax-deductible contribution with the benefit of a discount.

“You’re The Top,” the first concert of 1993, featured Donna Byrne singing the music of Cole Porter. She planned to include many well-known standards such as “Night and Day,” “I Get a Kick out of you,” “Begin the Beguine” and “All of Me.”  With her were guitarist Gray Sargent and bassist Marshall Wood. Donna was receiving a lot of recognition by this time. She had just completed a Hawaiian tour in which she performed jazz standards from the 40s. She was preparing a recording with Dave McKenna, Herb Pomeroy, Gray and Marshall; the anticipated release date was the fall of ’93.

The weather forecast, always a concern for me, was heavy rain. Nevertheless, we had a full house. Suddenly in the middle of the first set we heard crashes of thunder and the lights went out. There must have been a lightning strike nearby. A few emergency lights came on but it was difficult to see. I rushed out to locate the custodian, but he had no suggestions.

In desperation I decided to drive home to bring back as many candles as I could find; at least they would provide additional light. On my way I was forced to take numerous detours; a lot of the streets in my neighborhood were flooded. What should have taken me about 15 minutes turned into over an hour. I missed most of the concert and by the time I returned the lights were back on. I never did find out how Grey and Marshall played without any electricity for the guitar or the bass amp.  One note of interest- nobody in the audience asked for a refund!

In April the Alex Elin Trio presented “Round Midnight,” a tribute to the music of Thelonious Monk. Alex was joined by George Garzone on sax, Charlie LaChapelle on bass and Joe Hunt on drums. George had the reputation of being an outstanding improviser and was a good choice to interpret Monk’s unique style.

Swing Legacy

Swing Legacy

The Swing Legacy played in May- quite a change from the previous month. The group specialized in swing music- the sounds of Ellington, Glenn Miller, Basie, Goodman etc. In addition to Henry “Thins” Francis on piano there was a trumpet, two saxophones, a bass and drums. We even rolled back the Oriental rug to encourage people to get up and dance. Very few did, although I think many were tempted.

More Ellington in June with “The King and the Duke,” featuring the music of Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington. Both Cole and Ellington were piano players, band leaders and composers/arrangers. Most people think of Nat King Cole only as a vocalist but he started out playing piano in a trio format. His trio recordings are classics. Some people think he turned to vocals because that would be more lucrative.

Ted Casher

Left to right Ted Casher, Peter Bodge, Dave Trefethen
photograph by Ruth Williams

Paul Broadnax  organized a quintet for the evening with Ted Casher on reeds, Peter Bodge on drums, Dave Trefethen on guitar, Peter Kontrimas on bass and Paul on piano.

Vocalist Henrietta Robinson brought a trio of Frank Wilkins on piano, Ron Savage on drums and Bruce Gertz on bass for the September concert, entitled “My Jazz to you.”

Julia Boynton had come to several Highland Jazz concerts. I knew she was a fan of jazz; what I didn’t know was that she was a tap dancer. She drew me aside one night to ask if I would consider producing a jazz tap show as part of the Highland Jazz series. I knew very little about tap myself, having given up after my second lesson when I was in elementary school.

I did know that tap  had been making a comeback due in part to the popularity of the actor/dancer Gregory Hines. There were numerous tap dance studios scattered around Boston and the suburbs and Julia was confident that a tap evening would be a sell-out. She said she would be willing to contact the other dancers for me and to hire the piano player and bass player who usually accompanied them.

Four on the Floor

left to right Josh Hilberman, Drika Overton, Julia Boynton. In back Alan Dawson on drums
photograph by Ruth Williams

She invited three other dancers to join her, each with an impressive resume. Josh Hilberman had been called “a tap dancer ready to step into Gregory Hines’ shoes…” Drika Overton had produced numerous tap events in New Hampshire and had been awarded an individual artist fellowship from the New Hampshire Arts Council; Dianne Walker, known as “Lady Di” for her delicate bell-like tones, was one of the few internationally recognized women in the field. She had appeared on Broadway and in films. She had also served on the board of several tap organizations, and had been a board member of the Massachusetts Cultural Council for ten years . Dianne’s grant awards included The National Endowment for the Arts, Massachusetts Cultural Council, Jacobs Pillow, and the New England Foundation for the Arts.

At the time of the concert Julia Boynton was dancing with Brian Jones and had toured New England for five years in his All-Tap Revue.

Julia suggested the title of “Four on the Floor,”  which I really liked. Although Julia had promised a good turnout I had not anticipated the size of the crowd that November. We had rented the large auditorium at Pine Manor which held about 400 people. It was a madhouse at the ticket counter; it seemed  that every dancer between the ages of 5 and 12 was there. As we tried to accommodate the rush I noticed an older man glide in with an entourage. He went up to one of the volunteers at the ticket counter and announced himself as “…., the Director of the Dance Umbrella.” He told the volunteer that he expected to be “comped,” that is to have complimentary tickets for himself and his entourage. The confused volunteer didn’t know what to do. We actually didn’t have any extra  tickets.  She sought me out and asked for my help.

I was shocked at the audacity of the man. I had never met him and couldn’t understand why he expected to get free tickets. He had not tried to call before the concert nor leave a message on our answering machine. He was quite rude and condescending to me. I was close to calling the campus police to have him ejected. Finally one of the dancers arrived and asked if I could somehow give him a seat. I let him in alone, without his entourage just to keep the peace. It was the kind of behavior that I would never have expected from another promoter.

The music that night was organized by Paul Arslanian on piano. He was the regular accompanist at jazz tap performances. He brought Steve Neil to play bass. I hired George Garzone on tenor saxophone and Alan Dawson on drums. I felt that George had a good sense of humor and the improvisational skills to work in this context. He looked bemused throughout the performance but did an excellent job. As for Alan I felt that whatever rhythms were required he was the man to lay them down.

Julia was right- it was a very successful evening and helped to provide a financial cushion for upcoming events.

Where are they now?

In this  video Henry Thins Francis plays “Sophisticated Lady.” At the beginning you can catch sight of Ed Williams recording the session.  The Swing Legacy is still an active band as is evident from their web site.

Julia Boynton  is on the dance faculty at the Boston conservatory.

Drika Overton  is still dancing and teaching primarily in New Hampshire.

According to his web site Josh Hilberman is currently traveling and giving tap workshops throughout Europe.

Dianne Walker he has been dubbed the “Ella Fitzgerald” of Tap Dance. This video captures her signature style dancing to Jobim’s tune, “Black Orpheus.” and a much younger Dianne taps out “Perdido.”

Bird makes two appearances in 1994

jazz logo  The winter of 1993 was one of the worst in recent memory. To celebrate its end Paul Broadnax put together a concert entitled “Spring is Here.” His quartet included Peter Bodge on drums, Dave Trefethen on guitar and Peter Kontrimas on bass. Here’s the jazz quiz from that night.

Jazz quiz

Jazz IQ Quiz about spring

“Trumpet Madness,” which debuted in 1992, returned in April, once again under the leadership of Herb Pomeroy. Everyone enjoyed the informal rivalry of the trumpet men: Herb, Paul Fontaine and Greg Hopkins.

Trumpet Madness

left to right- Joe Hunt, Greg Hopkins, Charlie LaChapelle, Paul Fontaine, Alex Elin and Herb Pomeroy
photograph by Ruth Williams

Trumpet Madness

“Trumpet Madness”
photograph by Ruth Williams

“Bird Lives” brought the music of Charlie Parker for the first time to Highland Jazz. This was a programming leap of faith. It is true that Charlie Parker is considered the creator of bebop- a musical style which flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. At first a revolutionary music, bebop is now classic jazz. Bird, once the outsider, is now the old master. The challenge was finding musicians who could handle the type of vigorous solos Parker’s bands played. Historically the true bebop band was a quintet with alto sax, trumpet, piano, bass and drums. For our Bird evening I deviated a little from history and asked Bill Pierce to take the Bird role on tenor, feeling confident that he could do justice to Bird’s intricate and complicated harmonies. With him were Paul Fontaine on trumpet, Alex Elin on piano, Charlie LaChapelle on bass and Joe Hunt on drums.  It is interesting to reflect that the music of the 1950s and 60s, considered so revolutionary then, was now quite familiar to the audience of 1994.

One of the techniques I used to draw in an audience was to create an intriguing title for the evening. Instead of just announcing that the xyz band would perform I tried to develop a theme. Some musicians were not enthusiastic about the idea. I would sometimes hear the following comments: “Why can’t I just play or sing what I want?” or “I would rather perform my tunes.”

Unless the performers were well-known and had a strong following I was concerned about attracting an audience large enough to cover costs.  Using a theme gave the audience an idea about what to expect and provided some sort of a comfort zone, often a reason to buy a ticket.

This approach, however, didn’t always work out. One example was the June concert in 1994, entitled “All the Things you are,” featuring the music of Jerome Kern. Vocalist Jim Porcella made his debut with Highland Jazz that night.  He had a good resume: he was the featured male vocalist with Dick Johnson’s Swing Shift. According to Ron Della Chiesa of WGBH-FM “Jim sings with feeling, warmth and emotion.”

Jim and I discussed the program at length and he suggested an evening of Jerome Kern’s music.  However, the night of the concert he sang only one Kern tune and for the rest of the evening he performed songs that were part of his usual repertoire. Quite of few members of the audience expressed their disappointment by asking me what happened to Jerome Kern? They had come expecting to hear songs like “Ole Man River,” “The way you look tonight,” ” Smoke gets in your eyes” etc. I apologized; I was dumbfounded myself. Why did Jim accept the gig and suggest the theme if he did not intend to keep to the agreement? I never discovered the answer.

October brought the return of the Meredith d’Ambrosio-Eddie Higgins Duo. They had met on Cape Cod in July of 1987. Meredith was playing a gig and as one news article commented: “She played. He stayed. And, at the night’s end they were side by side at the piano bench, performing piano/vocal duets.”  They married a year later.

Higgins and d'Ambrosio

Eddie Higgins and Meredith d’Ambrosio
photograph by Ruth Williams

I have always felt that they were the perfect duo to perform in the Founders Room- Meredith’s husky and sultry voice and Eddie’s relaxed and delicate playing. They really had a way of captivating the audience- their musical chemistry was mesmerizing.

Quite a change of pace arrived in October with “Satchmo’s got it! A tribute to the music of Louis Armstrong” by the Dave Whitney Quartet.

Dave Whitney Quartet

left to right-Peter Kontrimas, Dave Whitney and Jon Wheatley
photograph by Ruth Williams

Trumpeter/vocalist Dave Whitney had been leading his own band since 1971 and was well respected for his interpretation of traditional jazz. He has an upbeat personality and enjoyed sharing lots of Armstrong stories with the audience. According to Ron Della Chiesa “the golden trumpet of Dave Whitney is unsurpassed…the reincarnation of Bix Beiderbecke.” Accompanying Dave were Jon Wheatley on guitar, Peter Kontrimas on bass and Chuck Laire on drums. We also presented a slide show featuring the photography of Ruth Williams and used the photos to test the audience’s jazz IQ about the musicians on the screen.

Paul Broadnax returned in November this time with a tribute to the fall, entitled “Tis Autumn.” People were surprised at the number of tunes inspired by falling leaves and crisp cool days.  His quartet included Paul on piano and vocals, Peter Bodge on drums, Marshall Wood on bass and a newcomer- Fred Haas on reeds.

Fred Haas

Fred Haas

“Live Bird” was a one-man play about Charlie “Bird” Parker, written, directed and performed by saxophone player Jeff Robinson.  In the play Jeff combined music and monologues to portray the life of Charlie Parker. The story begins in 1947 when Bird was 27 years old, at the peak of his creative powers.

Live Bird

Jeff Robinson
photograph by Ruth Williams

Martha Glinski

Martha Glinski and her oil painting of “Bird”
photograph by Ruth Williams

In the first floor living room we also featured the oil paintings of Martha Glinski who did paintings of Bird and many of his contemporaries

During the performance Robinson played both tenor and alto sax.  According to saxophonist Frank Morgan “this is one of the best plays about Bird that I’ve ever experienced.” Jeff had presented the play once or twice before coming to Pine Manor and considered it a work in process. He wanted to use the Pine Manor performance as another dress rehearsal and asked the audience for feedback at the end.  In retrospect I wished the play had already been fine tuned.

Where are they now?

When Meredith d’Ambrosio’s newest album “By Myself” was released,  Jazz Wax did a two-part interview with her. Here is part one.

This web site entitled “Live Bird” has a lot of interesting information about both Charlie Parker and Jeff Robinson. There is also a link to a sneak preview of the play itself.