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Jazz In Connecticut -- The Early Years

Jazz (Music Genre)ConcertsMusicCultureMusic Industry

With fabled clubs in the North End rocking with the sound of jazz, classic big bands and big-name instrumentalists and singers routinely blowing-off the roof at Foot Guard Hall on High Street, or shaking the foundations of the State Theater on Village Street, Hartford's vibrant, pre- and post-World War II scene was the city's first "Golden Age of Jazz."

Jazz was not only flourishing artistically, but was very much the music of the day for young people through the 1930s, all of the '40s and well into the 1950s. At its zenith in Hartford, jazz was everywhere and for everyone. Typically among the jazz fold were the young adults and slightly older, more urbane patrons who in the '50s regularly dug the suave, swinging sounds of the elegant jazz pianist Teddy Wilson at the legendary Heublein Hotel lounge in downtown Hartford.

One of the city's crown jewel venues of the 20th century, the lounge in the venerable hotel was a softly lit, elegant jazz spa right out of a vintage, black-and-white Hollywood flick. It was a sophisticated, posh place where, if you wore a jacket and a tie and acted like an adult, you could get served a Scotch on-the-rocks or an extra-dry martini even if you were a couple years under 21, then the legal age for getting a drink in Connecticut.

A younger, less inhibited set of jazz lovers in that era danced in the aisles at Hartford's hallowed cultural center, The Bushnell Memorial, at Norman Granz's fabled Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concerts, upsetting the management's sense of propriety a bit.

Moved by that JATP-generated passion, more unruly patrons in the mezzanine shouted out, "Go, man, go!' to the steamy, honking, erotically-charged tenor saxophone riffs of the swaggering Illinois Jacquet, the master machismo music-maker. Sedentary swingers, in sedate contrast, merely tapped their feet to a swinging, surreal scat solo by Ella Fitzgerald. Or with Zen-like hipness, the coolest of cool JATP fans, experiencing their very own introspective, natural high, would quietly savor a mesmerizing, melodically inventive, gossamer solo by the divinely inspired tenor saxophonist Lester Young, JATP's jazz Buddha whose spiritual solos were as holy as a Gregorian chant.

For all its power and glory from the 1930s through the 1950s, jazz didn't exactly start off like a ball of fire in Hartford. The sounds were just too shocking and too new for skeptical critics and elitist listeners who, nearly as far back as 100 years ago, found jazz noisy, noisome, uncultivated and uncouth.

In the early 1920s jazz's reception and public perception varied in Hartford from irate complaints from Colt Park neighborhood residents about "dance music jazzing from the park's pavilion" to a somewhat lukewarm notice in The Courant praising a Navy jazz band "for enthralling crowds at The Capitol Theater" where the jazzy sailors shared the vaudeville bill with trick bicyclists, a singing/dancing child act, acrobats, contortionists and a singing monologist — hardly promising signs of things to come for America's new music in Hartford.

Celebrated orchestra leader Paul Whiteman, somewhat billed as "The King of Jazz," fared far less well than The Capitol's novelty sailor band in a Courant review of the portly maestro's performance in 1924 at Foot Guard Hall. Looking down his nose (or perhaps holding it) a rather snooty, culturally patronizing Courant reviewer declared that the rotund bandleader's orotund attempts at gussying up jazz failed miserably to measure up to "good music as (it) has been generally understood by cultured people these many years."

"It gets terribly monotonous in its rhythms to those whose ears have been attuned to that which they fondly and firmly believe is infinitely and eternally better in music," the dyspeptic Courant scribe lamented.

A positive economic side effect of jazz — at least for the piano tuning business — was cited in a sarcastic Courant news item in the 1920s reporting, with a derisive tone, that the outbreak of the excessively heavy pounding by jazz pianists was putting pianos across the nation out of tune "in about half the time it took formerly."

Adding insult to mockery, The Courant in 1926 polled its readership on whether the performance of jazz should be permitted in public on Sundays. With 1,143 readers voting to keep Sunday safe from the corrupting temptations of jazz, the convention-flouting music lost by a landslide as only 349 readers lined up in favor of allowing Satan's latest sinful, musical concoction to profane the Sabbath.

But as the Jazz Age evolved and popular culture — everything from silent films, the rising radio-craze, flapper fashions, hip flasks and hip music —- became an irresistibly powerful social force, praise began to crescendo for jazz in The Courant as the syncopated sounds became increasingly popular in Hartford.

By the 1930s, Duke Ellington and his singer Ivy Anderson received a rave review in The Courant for being "especially musically intelligent." Even as the stock market plunged, jazz's stock was rising in Hartford. Count Basie and his orchestra, for example, were royally hailed for playing at an upscale ball held at, of all places, the prestigious Hartford Club, with absolutely no caveat emptors issued by The Courant writer about the primal crudities of jazz offending the cultivated listener's superior musical sensibilities.

A performance at the State Theater featuring the swinging Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra and diva Billie Holiday was even awarded the highest accolade by a Courant entertainment writer for what she described as its "pop and oomph".

By the late 1930s and '40s, jazz had shifted into high gear in Hartford. Its influence was mushrooming everywhere. You could catch it at wildly popular but now long forgotten venues that includede the Paddock in East Hartford, where such national notables as pianist Art Hodes and trumpeter Will Bill Davison wailed. Or you could test your luck at the city's once flourishing Clover Leaf where, at least according to local legend, the storied pianist/composer Jelly Roll Morton was hired to help bibulously ecstatic Hartfordites celebrate the glorious repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

Jazz Champions

Long before college radio, you could hear jazz on the air on WTIC on a pioneering show called "Gems of American Jazz." Hosted by Connecticut's "foremost jazz musicologist" George Malcolm-Smith, it debuted in 1942, establishing a hip, or maybe back then, a hep radio tradition carried on in more recent times by invaluable college FM radio stations beaming their jazz message across the state.

One of the city's most flamboyant and devout early supporters of jazz, Malcolm-Smith (1901-1984) was a noted comic novelist, a founder and onetime president of the Hartford Jazz Society (HJS) and a sometime jazz critic for The Courant.

Dashing, dapper and madly in love with jazz in all its forms, he was a celebrated figure about town. A humorous man of intellectual substance, he accentuated his elegant manner by smoking his favorite brand with a cigarette holder held and bandied about in the grand gestural manner of FDR. Perhaps because he had a deep sense of history and of the lasting value of the music, Malcolm-Smith's voluminous, chatty but information-packed "Swinger" newsletters for the HJS are an invaluable chronicle of the Society's formative years, a rare archive of written documents waiting to be mined by a jazz historian.

In that long ago happily abundant, first Golden Age of Jazz, you could hear jazz live just about anywhere in Hartford. It could be Art Tatum or Stan Kenton on stage at The Bushnell. Or it could be the young Dave Mackay, the brilliant, blind pianist, Lennie Tristano protégé and Trinity College undergrad grooving high before an excited, packed house at one of the two, swinging Elks Clubs in the North End.

It was the best of times back then when a young, gifted Horace Silver and the mysterious, enigmatic, tragically doomed jazz genius Gigi Gryce walked the streets of Hartford and were playing and making history in jazz clubs in the Capital City.

Raising Young Talent

Jazz was a do-it-yourself art form back then, not yet thought of as morally or aesthetically fit for the college classroom. Or so it was perceived by more prudish tastemakers and rigid gate-keepers of culture.

Today, of course, the classroom has enormous impact in perpetually rejuvenating jazz through widespread education programs that yearly produce fresh armies of highly trained musicians and composers.

The jazz scene has been enormously enriched in recent decades through jazz education programs at high schools and the college level — The Hartt School's Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford and Wesleyan University's acclaimed world and jazz music studies.

In the post-war era's jazz boom, Hartford's Young Lions like Cliff Gunn, Walter Bolden and Harold Holt jammed in local clubs with the city's best and brightest, as well as with visiting jazz potentates from the Big Apple. Unlike the jazz concerts at The Bushnell, Foot Guard Hall or the State Theater, venues in the remarkably swinging club scene in the North End — at nightspots like Club Sundown and The Subway -- coming attractions were promoted mostly by word of mouth.

Even Hartford's burbs were crackling with jazz as the Truman Era faded into the Eisenhower Era. But, in some cases, venues on the outskirts of town favored a more mainstream style, digging classic, pre-bebop swingers like Eddie Condon, Hot Lips Page and the godlike Sidney Bechet, who were among the many more traditional greats jamming in Newington at the Matarese Circle, then one of the area's many red-hot spots for jazz. Among the Connecticut notables jammng there were the then well-known multi-instrumentalist Dick Cary, a Hartford native, and pianist Jack O'Brien, a Middletown native, who was among the first American jazz musicians to perform throughout Europe in the 1920s.

Superstars like Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, two bona fide American idols of the period, happily performed in Hartford.

Ellington, who began appearing in Hartford in the 1930s, was one of the major pioneering black artists whose music leapt over the hurdles of the period's steep racist barriers, mesmerizing a crossover audiences. In Terry Teachout's new, acclaimed biography, "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington," he writes that Ellington began writing his masterpiece, the "Black, Brown and Beige" suite, in 1942 backstage at the State Theater where his band was sharing the bill with Frank Sinatra.

Goodman, "the King of Swing," liked Connecticut so much that he eventually enthroned himself in a regal home in Stamford. The clarinetist/bandleader was a transplant among a number of other jazz greats who settled permanently in Connecticut.

The famous big band leader Glenn Miller, who had enlisted in the Army Air Corps, was headquartered in New Haven for 1 ½ years, marshaling his big band music as a wartime morale and recruitment booster.

Most famously, Miller and his military band broadcast live, weekly radio shows from Yale's Woolsey Hall, upbeat recruitment programs orchestrated to attract young men to enlist in the Air Corps.

The Rebirths Continue

As with any historical Golden Age — at some point the good times end, even if just for awhile.

Jazz's darkest hour, both in Connecticut and nationwide, was in the early 1960s when rock seemed like the irresistible force that would crush jazz. But local enthusiasts kept it going in the state. From Art Fine, a most notable key behind-the-scenes force on behalf of jazz, Jackie McLean and his wife, Dollie, and bassist Paul Brown and the Hartford Jazz Society to many talented musicians who called Connecticut home — Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, and so many more.

But, perhaps, the truth of the matter is that Hartford at this present moment in 2014 is enjoying its very own, new Golden Age.

The local scene is teeming with talent, locally grown and increasingly nationally renowned. An extremely jazz-friendly Hartford has become noted as a manufacturing center for the creation of fine, domestically-raised products ranging from the dazzling double bassist Dezron Douglas, saxophonist, Joel Frahm; drummer Richie Barshay and saxophonists Erica von Kleist, Kris Allen and Noah Preminger to the remarkable Curtis brothers, pianist Zaccai Curtis and bassist Luques Curtis.

In Hartford alone, with the Hartford Jazz Society still leading they way you can sample the sounds year-round at a continully growing list of venues and events — Monday Night Jazz Series and the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, all in Bushnell Park; The Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, also in the downtown park, and the Baby Grand Jazz Series at the Hartford Public Library, Hartford's Artists Collective and Real Art Ways, many restaurants including the weekly "Monday Night Jazz" series at Black-eyed Sally's. And outside Hartford newcomers such as Old Lyme's superb Side Door Jazz Club and Firehouse 12 in New Haven are presenting top name performers.

Dezron Douglas, who was born and raised here, reports that the buzz on the New York club scene today is that there is now "the Hartford sound," a style so individual that it has a name and a historic, geographical and stylistic category all its own.

Few cities—even those many times larger than Hartford-- can point to such a proud jazz history that has produced a distinctive sound uniquely its own. That's a ringing endorsement any city might well savor among its prized cultural accomplishments. It even has the resonant sounding glow of a new Golden Age of Jazz for Hartford, one that's happening right now and has no expiration date.

The accounts sited in today's series on the history of jazz in the Greater Hartford and New Haven areas were distilled from Courant news reports of the time, archives of The Hartford Jazz Society, interviews, reviews and feature articles written by McNally and previously published in The Courant.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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