Returning to Boston after World War II, George Wein was torn.
Enrolled at Boston University on the GI Bill, his growing passion for jazz was overtaking his pre-med and history studies. The more gigs George played around town, the more the pianist realized his heart wasn't in medicine or the past. By the late 1940s, George not only was playing jazz but also organizing dates for his groups and ensuring that bandmembers were paid. [Pictured: George with Sarah Vaughan in 1987]
So after graduation in 1950, George scraped together enough cash and charm to open a jazz club in the centrally located Copley Square Hotel [pictured]. Naming the club Storyville, George began booking his favorite musicians, many of whom he already knew from professional encounters at other Boston clubs.
JW: How much did it cost to open the club in 1950?
GW: When I opened Storyville, I had $5,000. I bought 40 to 50 tables at $10 a table and 200 chairs at $3 a chair. I bought a sound system for $600 that consisted of a little amplifier with two speakers that I hung next to the bandstand. I bought a cash register for $300, spent $700 to have the club painted, and hired a kid to put a mural on the wall. And I was in business. You can’t do that now. You can’t walk across the street for $5,000.
JW: Did you get pressure from mobsters on which acts to book?
GW: No never. I never had that. The pressure I faced was having to get a different attraction every week. That was very tough. There just weren’t that many great groups. Remember, I needed 40 different attractions because we were open 40 weeks a year. We were closed in the summer. If I was lucky, I could get 15 or 20 good attractions. The rest were great musicians who played wonderful music, but they wouldn't sell tickets. They weren't as popular with fans.
JW: What was your original goal with the club?
GW: I was interested in playing as many of the jazz greats as possible. I didn’t look at the box office results, really. When I played George Shearing [pictured] early on, the place was full. I said to myself, "Boy this is going to be great." Going forward, I said, I only want to play Art Tatum, Billie Holiday and all the people I loved. But while all the people I loved were great musicians, some had small publics and didn’t have hit recordings.
JW: What did hit records have to do with it?
GW: Plenty. I didn’t realize at the time that hit records were the things that sold tickets. I thought that reputations and what other musicians thought of artists sold ticks. Then I learned that if a radio station played a record people liked, people came to hear the music played by the artist. But booking artists with hit records wasn't the basis of what Storyville was. I had a love for what I was doing. I wanted to do things that people would be proud of. I didn’t want a joint. I wanted them to have a nice place to play and hear jazz.
JW: Was he invited to the first festival?
GW: No. I was planning on having him up to the second one in 1955, but, of course, he died in March of that year.
JW: Did Parker ever try to con you as a club owner?
GW: No. He was always very professional. He never missed a set. He didn’t have his own working band, so I had to hire local musicians. He was supposed to play for me the week he died. He didn’t show up, so we figured Bird goofed, which he never did when he played for me. Then we found out what happened in the newspapers.
JW: How did Bird sound?
GW: He played beautifully. I got his message. I was not a big Charlie Parker fan. But when he played the club, and I heard him every night, I understood why he was the daddy of all the contemporary players.
JW: Did you play with him?
GW: Yes. When he came up to Boston, we'd have jam sessions on Sunday afternoons. After 1953, I had a second club downstairs in the Copley Square Hotel called Mahogany Hall. It featured mostly traditional jazz. I had Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson and me downstairs along with the other Mahogany Hall All Stars while Bird was playing upstairs with his quartet. I asked Bird to play with us, he said sure, so we came up and played Royal Garden Blues with him.
JW: What was that like?
GW: When he played his blues chorus, our jaws dropped open. The strength of what he could do and the strength of his playing was just amazing. Playing behind him wasn't a problem, since we were playing what we had always played, but with Charlie Parker's bop style. Bebop is really swing with a little inflection in the beat. Bebop wasn't the first real departure in jazz. The first real departure came with John Coltrane [pictured]. Up until then, most everything had some type of 32-bar format.
JW: Did Mahogany Hall eat into Storyville's business?
GW: Not at all. Mahogany Hall featured more traditional jazz. It was a completely different audience. We had some classic jam sessions down there. One afternoon I had Art Tatum playing with Sidney Bechet [pictured]. That was incredible. What the two clubs did have in common is that both were losing money [laughs]. But it didn't matter. People always wonder how you manage to stay in business so many years when you lose money. I don’t know how but somehow or other you do. I was earning money outside the clubs, you know, with the Newport Jazz Festival and tours and things like that. Everything I earned went back into the club. But in the mid-1950s, losing money was different than today. Maybe you lost $10,000 at the end of the year. It wasn’t a big financial thing. Today, when you lose money, you’re losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
JW: Did you ever want to install recording equipment at Storyville?
GW: No. We could have if we asked permission of the musicians and paid them. It was too expensive and wasn’t part of our budget. Nowadays kids have TVs in their clubs or whatever. It’s a different world.
JW: Tell me about the Stan Getz Quintet at Storyville in 1951.
GW: That year Stan [pictured] led one of the greatest bands he ever had. He had Al Haig on piano, Jimmy Raney on guitar, Teddy Kotick on bass and Tiny Kahn on drums. That was an exciting band. I loved Stan's music and always had. But as an individual, that was a different matter. In 1951, I hadn’t yet encountered too much of his idiocies. That would come later.
JW: What do you mean?
GW: You couldn’t predict what Stan was going to do. From my perspective, it wasn’t that he was nasty. He might not show up or might not care. I remember I had him in Europe once. We had a date in Belfast, Ireland. He got on a plane and flew to Belfast. When he got there, he got on another plane and flew to London and never played the job. He was unpredictable like that.
JW: Gerry Mulligan at Storyville in 1956 also gave a legendary performance.
GW: There always was an excitement about Gerry. That group he had was terrific: Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone, Bill Crow on bass and Dave Bailey on drums. Gerry was a big part of the jazz explosion of the 1950s. In those days you had so many great players and groups. When I did a festival, I had Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, the Modern Jazz Quartet. Never mind veteran artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. It went on and on and on with the different groups making records and each artist establishing an identity. It was an extraordinary time.
JW: Did Mulligan have a different temperament than Getz?
GW: Gerry off stage was the sweetest guy you’d want to meet. But when you had to deal with him on business, he was so concerned with excellence that he could be a pain in the neck. He was so worried about every little thing as a performer. Then you’d have him over the house for dinner and he’d be the greatest person you’d ever meet socially.
JW: What was he a pain in the neck about?
GW: Sound, position on show, length of set, every little detail. He never ran out of things.
JW: Lee Konitz in 1954 also delivered a great Storyville performance that was captured on record.
GW: Lee and I became very close. I had a little record company then. At the time Paul Desmond was so popular. We felt Lee could have been another Paul. So I recorded him and Ronnie Ball on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Al Levitt on drums. At the time, his modern jazz records didn't sell well. Now, of course, Lee is as popular as ever and, it turns out, historically a more important alto saxophonist.
JW: Did Boston club-goers get what Lee was trying to do?
JW: Did you get it?
GW: I got it. I made two of the records in the studio myself. If you listen to the music a lot, you get it.
JW: Billie’s last performance was at Storyville in April 1959...
GW: It wasn’t Billie’s last performance. It was her last good performance. She sang at the Blue Moon Café in Lowell, Massachusetts a short time later. I wanted to go up and see her. Father [Norman] O'Connor, who was a big jazz fan and on my Newport Jazz Festival board, said, "George, don’t go up there, you’ll be devastated, don’t do it." So I didn't. Billie died that July.
JW: Do you remember her run at your club that week in April?
GW: I had been away most of the week and came back on Sunday. I sat through all her afternoon and evening shows that day. At the end of the night, I went up to her and said, "Billie, what is it with you? You sound fantastic. You sound as great as ever." Billie said, "I'm straight now, George, you gotta help me, I’m straight.” I said, “Great, I’ll call [manager] Joe Glaser, and we'll set up a date for you at Newport.” Then she took my hand and put it on her heart so I could feel her heart bumping up and down. After she did that I cried. It was so tragic. [Photo by Milt Hinton]
Tomorrow, in the third and final part of my conversation with George, the jazz legend talks about Lester Young, the Newport Jazz Festival, the musician he connected with most, and his sole regret.
JazzWax tracks: Charlie Parker's appearance at Storyville on
March 10, 1953 was broadcast by Boston's WHDH radio, which recorded the performance. Parker appeared with Red Garland on piano, Bernie Griggs on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. The album can be downloaded here.
Stan Getz recorded with his famed Jimmy Raney quintet at Storyville in October 1951. The complete Storyville sessions can be found here.
The Gerry Mulligan Quartet at Storyville was recorded in December 1956. The album can be downloaded here.
For more live Storyville recordings, go to the search engine at a CD retail site and type in "Jazz at Storyville."