Boston's Jazz History

Of Datelines and Down Beats: Jazz, George Frazier, and Late-Night Boston

by Richard Vacca

Quarter Notes readers can easily reel off the names of numerous jazz musicians with strong Boston ties, but the city has excelled in another category, too; one closer to the city’s fabled literary tradition. Boston has nurtured its share of jazz writers, from Nat Hentoff to Bob Blumenthal. Before all of them, though, came George Frazier, the man his employer, Down Beat, called “Acidmouth.” He may well have been that, but whatever else he was, he was indisputably the first man of Boston jazz letters.

 
Jazz came early to Frazier. A South Boston boy, he played clarinet while attending Boston Latin High School, and he was writing for European magazines like La Revue Musicale while still at Harvard (class of '33). He started reviewing records for Mademoiselle in 1936. And then came Down Beat.

Down Beat’s 1995 anthology, 60 Years of Jazz, noted that “Part of the fun of Down Beat’s early years was that its critics’ opinions were rarely muddled with balance, nuance, or subtle elucidation. Typical was George Frazier, whose literary flair and arbitrary pot shots at the big shots won him a reputation for offbeat outrageousness... he wrote columns full of cranky, provocative copy the editors in Chicago loved.”

That doesn’t tell the half of it. If George was taking pot shots at the big shots, he was firing full broadsides at Boston: at the poor quality of its musicians, the Jim Crow practices in some of the city’s clubs and hotel ballrooms, and the bland state of Boston nightlife. “Boston remains as dull and stupid as ever,” he raged in February 1937. He praised the new big band of Frankie Ward, not because of its brilliance, but because “any Boston band that plays in tune is a rarity.” Mickey Alpert? “Excruciating.” Ruby Newman? “Amateurish.” In January 1941, he summed it all up in two words: “Boston stinks.”

The center of Frazier’s world in the mid Thirties was the Theatrical Club, an after-hours place downstairs in the Metropolitan Hotel. Its house band, led by the then-unknown Bobby Hackett, and including his longtime cohorts Brad Gowans and Teddy Roy, made Frazier “scream with jazz,” and he peppered his Down Beat column with praise.

The cream of the jazz crop—the white jazz crop—came to the Theatrical to hear Hackett and sit in with his group: Goodman, Teagarden, Berigan. It was Frazier who instigated the downfall of Jim Crow there, arranging for Fats Waller to appear at the Theatrical and break the color line for good. “Now this joint’s officially jumpin’!” proclaimed Waller. Everyone agreed. And Frazier was delighted.

Frazier loved Bobby Hackett and without question did more than anyone to bring him to prominence. As early as July 1936, he wrote in Down Beat that “Nobody has ever caught Bix’ eloquent tone quite so successfully... He plays with an amazing delicacy, avoiding meaningless technical displays and high notes.” When Hackett joined Glenn Miller in 1941, Frazier simply mourned: “requiescat in pace.”

Another favorite was Frankie Newton. In June 1937 he claimed that Newton “reaffirms his right to be classed with the really top notch trumpets of the day, for his swing, tone, taste, intonations, and inspirations are above reproach.” In 1942 Frazier placed Newton second only to Armstrong among the trumpet players.

Frazier brought it all home, literally, with his “Sweet and Low Down” column in the Boston Herald, beginning January 27, 1942. “Sweet and Low Down” was a full-time job, five columns a week, 300 words per column. It was the first regular jazz column to appear in an American big-city daily. It was a busy year for Frazier. He was writing “Sweet and Low Down,” contributing to Down Beat and Music and Rhythm (another early Forties music magazine out of Chicago), and writing record reviews for Mademoiselle. He was on the radio too, on WEEI on Saturday mornings, and occasionally hosting “Millions for Defense” on WORL, selling war bonds.

George toned down his commentary in the Herald. He still wrote sharp leads (“The banjo never did anything to me and I haven’t a thing against it, but just the same I’m happier when it’s not around.” “The Andrews Sisters leave town tonight, and I have no intention of trying to stop them.”) and he still fired his zingers, but he talked up what was right with Boston more than he did in Down Beat. Frazier praised the bands of Frankie Newton and Sabby Lewis, promoted the Sunday jam sessions at the Ken Club, and noted that the clubs that offered good jazz—the Ken, the Savoy and the Tic Toc—were doing S.R.O. business. He dedicated his Sunday column to the mailbag, for better or worse. (“Dear George Frazier,” wrote one reader in August, “I hate you bitterly.”)

Sabby Lewis became one of Frazier’s favorites. The Theatrical Club was long gone by 1942, and the Savoy, where Lewis had the house band, was Frazier’s new base of operations. Frazier liked the Lewis band—their steady improvement, their sense of swing, and the outstanding contribution of bassist Al Morgan. When the F.W. Fitch Company, sponsors of the popular Bandwagon radio program, announced their contest to find a local band to appear on the show that summer, Frazier pressed Sabby’s case in his column. The Lewis band was selected, and their Bandwagon broadcast affirmed their reputation as the best band in Boston.

Frazier’s jazz writing hit its high point on June 3, with his heartfelt homage to his friend Bunny Berigan, who died the previous day. They stopped the presses at the Herald until Frazier finished the column, an acknowledgement not only of Berigan but also of Frazier and his readers.

“Sweet and Low Down” ran for the last time on October 16, 1942, but Frazier had already left town by then, for New York and his new position as Life magazine’s entertainment editor.

Frazier left more than the Herald that month. He also left jazz journalism, and over the remaining 32 years of his life, wrote on the subject only occasionally. He could still cause a stir, as he did in 1954 with his controversial liner notes to a Lee Wiley record, described by one Boston newspaperman as “Rabelaisian.” Frazier remained a fan, loyal to the music of his younger days—the Condon mob and “Nicksieland” (it would not be unfair to call him a moldy fig). Frazier abhorred modern jazz; in 1950 he called Dizzy Gillespie “a musical monstrosity.”

After decades as a free-lancer and columnist, Frazier ended his career at the Boston Globe. There he often explored the mysteries of duende, that intangible quality of overwhelming charisma exhibited by such jazz world figures as Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday.

Frazier was a “jazz writer” for only about six years, but those years will always mark him as Boston’s first man of jazz journalism. To the end, he wrote with wit and style, and to the end, some of his readers hated him bitterly—but they always read his column first. George Frazier died in Boston of cancer on June 13, 1974.

A version of this article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of Quarter Notes and appears here with the publisher's permission.

Richard Vacca is the author of The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937-1962, published by Troy Street Publishing. You can reach him at richard.vacca@comcast.net.

View the companion article, "In His Own Words: George Frazier, Boston Herald, 1942."