Boyce Brown (1910-1959) is a tantalizing, elusive figure. Although he played hot jazz with the great Chicagoans, he was not one of them — hard-living and hard-drinking. The picture above shows him in 1956, surrounded by Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Russell, Ernie Caceres, Eddie Condon, and George Wettling, at his final recording session.
Scott Yanow calls Boyce “eccentric,” “outlandish,” “an erratic individual,” although those characterizations sound ungenerous. I think of the famous lines from T. S. Eliot’s THE FAMILY REUNION, “In a world of fugitives, it is those that turn away that appear to run away.”
In the case of Boyce Brown, it is difficult to know if he chose to turn away from the world of musicians and gigs for the world of the spirit, or if the earthly world scorned him. All we know are the facts of his short life. He became a professional musician at 17 and recorded with some of the greatest Hot players — but his path was an unusual one outside the clubs and recording studios.
Boyce loved marijuana and what it could do, but it didn’t contribute to his death. He didn’t die of tuberculosis or freeze on a Harlem doorstep, but prejudice and sorrow seem to have shortened his life. He is certainly underrated and not well-known or well-remembered. I agree with Jim Denham (of SHIRAZ SOCIALIST) who thinks that Boyce should be both remembered and celebrated. And although I’ve never met Jeff Crompton (of HELLO THERE, UNIVERSE) I and other jazz fans are indebted to him for his generosities. (You can find the blogs written by Jim and Jeff on my blogroll.)
What facts I have collected seem at first an assortment of weird personality traits, but viewed lovingly, they are the markings of a rare bird.
Boyce was someone who “saw” musical notes as colors. He nearly died at birth; the midwife saved him by reshaping his unformed skull. His parents encouraged him to take up the saxophone in hopes that it would strengthen his weak chest. When he played, he had a habit of stretching his neck out like a bird — causing him to be rejected at an audition for the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.
Eddie Condon said Boyce was “a slow reader,” Condon-speak for partial blindness. Boyce lived with his mother, wrote poetry, listened to Delius. Condon’s SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ contains Boyce’s whimsical poem about ROYAL-T (slang for the best marijuana), hilarious and tenderly decorated by Boyce himself — a Hot illuminated manuscript.
He named his alto saxophone Agnes, and thought deeply about her personality and moods; if a recording disappointed him, he blamed himself for not being in harmony with his instrument. All of this might seem freakish on first perusal, but other musicians have spoken of their synesthesia (Marian McPartland, whom no one considers an eccentric, told Whitney Balliett that the key of D was daffodil yellow), and Ben Webster, hardly an introvert, called his saxophone Betsy or Ol’ Betsy.
But before we get caught up in the debris of habit and personal history, let us — as Al Smith used to say — look at the record. Or listen. Two, in fact, from 1939: CHINA BOY and JAZZ ME BLUES:
Boyce sounds like himself. Those rolling, tumbling figures are the playing of a man on a mission, someone with a message for us in the eight or sixteen bars allotted him.
The critic Dave Dexter, Jr. got excited about these recordings, hearing his volatile style as a precursor of Charlie Parker. I don’t find that assessment valuable (must all roads in jazz lead to a Greater Master?) preferring to hear Boyce as someone whose phrases had a certain winding urgency, his notes poised on the front end of the beat. More than a fledgling bopper, Boyce seems to have deeply understood the impulsive leaping playing of 1927 Louis and Frank Teschemacher. Hal Smith calls him “the hottest alto saxophonist in jazz.”
(Boyce’s descendants in this century might be Michael McQuaid and John “Butch” Smith — players who know that the alto saxophone needs a great deal of punch to keep it from sounding like a polite older relative.)
Here is a link to Jeff Crompton’s excellent, generous survey of Boyce’s life — where he shares with us a rare disc, I SURRENDER DEAR and ON A BLUES KICK, where Boyce and Wild Bill Davison are the front line:
The Boyce Brown discography is brief — his recordings could fit on three compact discs — but it is choice. His better-known associates surely valued the reticent altoist.
I apologize for the onslaught of data, but in trying to explain something about Boyce Brown, the details of his recording sessions are valuable when we have so little else. As far as I can tell, no one interviewed him during his playing career, and the press coverage he received at the end of his life emphasized (however gently) his uniqueness: the lady preacher with an alto saxophone.
Boyce was first recorded as a member of a working band, Paul Mares And His Friars Society Orchestra (a John Hammond idea?) : Paul Mares (tp) Santo Pecora (tb) Omer Simeon (cl) Boyce Brown (as) Jess Stacy (p) Marvin Saxbe (g) Pat Pattison (b) George Wettling (d). One session, the results unissued in the 78 era, took place on January 7, 1935. (The music came out on Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society # 6, twenty years or so after Boyce’s death.) The same four songs were re-recorded on January 26, and were issued on two OKeh 78s that I imagine were quite hard to find even in 1935: NAGASAKI, REINCARNATION, MAPLE LEAF RAG, THE LAND OF DREAMS (the last based on BASIN STREET BLUES). These four (and a MAPLE LEAF RAG from the first date) have been issued on the 2-CD Retrieval set of the complete New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Theoretically all eight titles have been issued on “Chicago 1935,” a CD on the Gannet label, but I’ve never seen it. REINCARNATION, possibly a composition of Boyce’s, was named for one of his spiritual beliefs — unusual but not unknown in 1935 Chicago.
On March 11, 1935, Boyce returned to the studios with Charles LaVere And His Chicagoans : Johnny Mendell, Marty Marsala (tp) Jabbo Smith (tp,vcl) Preston Jackson (tb) Joe Marsala (cl,ts-1) Boyce Brown (as) Bud Taylor (ts-2) Charles LaVere (p,vcl) Joe Young (g) Leonard Bibbs (b) Zutty Singleton (d) The Chicagoans (vcl) for BOOGABOO BLUES and UBANGI MAN, neither title issued on 78. On April 5, the LaVere band tried again, without Jabbo Smith; Joe Masek (ts) Israel Crosby (b) replaced Bud Taylor, Leonard Bibbs. They recorded I’D RATHER BE WITH YOU, SMILES, ALL TOO WELL, and BOOGABOO BLUES. Again the sides were not released on 78, but several lp issues exist — one of the strangest issues a later dub (a copy given to me by Ralph O’Callaghan) — a 16 rpm 7″ record labeled “Black Diamond.” On the other side was a 1933 Reuben Reeves session.
Four years later, on October 11, 1939, Boyce was recorded again, and these sides had wider distribution; he was a member of Jimmy MacPartland’s band: Jimmy McPartland (cnt) Bud Jacobson (cl) Boyce (as) Floyd Bean (p) Dick McPartland (g) Jim Lannigan (b) Hank Isaacs (d). These sides have been made possible by the Friend of Jazz George Avakian and Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft and George Avakian, and they appeared in the Decca CHICAGO JAZZ album:JAZZ ME BLUES, CHINA BOY, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, and SUGAR.
Hank O’Neal tells me that Boyce joined in on the private sessions at Squirrel Ashcraft’s house in the late Thirties, and that one track from these sessions was issued on a 1965 collection called MORE INFORMAL SESSIONS AT SQUIRREL’s, a recording worth searching for. Hank also recalls that Squirrel, thirty years later, characterized Boyce as gifted but troubled.
Boyce’s most hard-to-find session (also in Chicago, February 12, 1940) was as a member of THE COLLECTOR’S ITEM CATS, which featured the then also little-known Wild Bill Davison, cornet; Boyce; Mel Henke (a pianist who gained later fame on the West Coast); Walter Ross on bass; Joe Kahn on drums. Two sides, I SURRENDER DEAR and ON A BLUES KICK, came out on Collector’s Item 102: a 78 issue — shared with us by Jeff Crompton.
Boyce also worked in the “ideal” band co-led by cornetist Pete Daily and pianist-composer Frank Melrose. A good deal of their privately recorded music has been released on the Delmark CD BLUESIANA. (The thought of Boyce and Kansas City Frank on gigs — creative individuals who did not fit the stereotypical idea of the hard-drinking Chicago jazz musician — is intriguing, and it makes me regret, not for the first time, that few fans at that time carried stenographer’s notebooks to interview these men.)
The late Bob Thiele spent some time in Chicago (where he recorded a band with clarinetist Bud Jacobson and Frank Melrose, something to bless Thiele for). An unissued 1945 session for Bud Jacobson and His Hot Club Orchestra includes Bill Stapleton (cnt) Jacobson (cl,ts) Boyce (as) Mel Grant (p) Dick McPartland (g) Pat Pattison (b) Lew Finnerty (d), playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE, WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING, INDIANA, and HOT CLUB BLUES. Does anyone know who or where the Signature masters are held, and have any of my readers ever heard this music?
Also in 1945, the jazz scholar / collector / recordist John Steiner held a series of concerts at the Uptown Playhouse Theater in Chicago. His Jimmy Noone Memorial Concert (in August) featured Darnell Howard (clarinet), Boyce, Baby Dodds (drums), Gideon Honoré (piano), Jack Goss (guitar), Tut Soper (second piano), and Pat Pattison (bass). On another occasion, Steiner sponsored a “jamboree” resulting in forty-five minutes of recordings of Lee Collins, Boyce, Darnell Howard, Volly DeFaut, pianists Gideon Honoré, Tut Soper, Jack Gardner, Mel Henke, and Chet Roble, among others. and drummer Jim Barnes were among the contributors. But in April 1946, a fire destroyed the Playhouse, and Steiner lost 150 unissued sides by Jack Gardner and groups, 20 sides by groups led by Boyce, a few by Frank Melrose, and location recordings by Honoré, Zinky Cohn, Punch Miller, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Jimmy Yancey. (A sorrowing moment of silence is appropriate here.) This information comes from the fascinating website devoted to S D (Steiner-Davis) Records: http://www.hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/sd.html.
Boyce’s last session was a decade later. His absence from the recording studios might have been in part the result of changing fashions in music; what had been sought-after Hot Jazz was soon pushed aside with the popularity of bop, but I imagine that Boyce became more reclusive. All this is supposition, but he seems to have been unfitted with the survival skills jazz musicians require: call up a club owner, create an opportunity to record. One thinks of the nearly-blind Art Tatum and the completely blind George Shearing and Jeff Healey, but they might have been recognized as stronger personalities with more audaciously commanding technique than Boyce’s subtle ways.
Boyce seems always to have been contemplating the eternal rather than the quotidian, and he was baptized a Catholic in 1952. The LIFE magazine story notes that a club owner “objected to” Boyce’s habit of for blessing himself before beginning to play. I can only imagine that scene, and JAZZ LIVES readers might write the dialogue — the club owner astounded and irate, Boyce gently explaining that this was what he did before he played. I have written of other musicians (Frank Newton as my prime example) who loved the music without reservation but recoiled from the business of music, and Boyce seems to be one of that tender breed. Putting his beliefs into action, Boyce entered the Servite monastery as a friar in 1953 — devoting himself to chastity, poverty, and the contemplation of spiritual ideals and sorrows.
When Boyce went into a New York recording studio on April 2-3, 1956, he was no longer “Boyce Brown” but “Brother Matthew,” a monk, someone who wanted his royalties from the sale of the recording to go to missions in Africa. The session was the idea of a record company executive, and certainly it had journalistic potential as good copy in that era of “comeback” stories, reuniting a monk who still could play Hot with his internationally famous colleagues. Boyce was showcased with the Eddie Condon band of the time, and a LIFE photograph shows him gingerly accepting a drink from Wild Bill Davison, peering tentatively into the glass — whether from blindness or caution, one cannot say.
Since Condon was under contract to Columbia Records (thanks again to Avakian) he may not have played guitar on the sessions — guitar credit goes to Paul Smith, Eddie’s brother-in-law, but Condon “conducted,” which is what he did so well. This group was Wild Bill Davison (cnt) Cutty Cutshall (tb) Pee Wee Russell (cl) Boyce (as) Ernie Caceres (bar) Gene Schroeder (p) Bob Casey (b) George Wettling (d) Eddie Condon (cond), and they recorded OUT OF NOWHERE, I NEVER KNEW, SOMEDAY SWEETHEART, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, MY BLUE HEAVEN, LINGER AWHILE, BLUES FOR BOYCE, SISTER KATE, SWEET GEORGIA BROWN.
Those who collect Fifties television kinescopes may have seen Boyce on the Garry Moore Show (Moore loved hot jazz) or I’VE GOT A SECRET. I can’t envision Brother Matthew being comfortable on show as a genial oddity — the jazz-musician-monk — but perhaps he did it because it would bring good publicity and contributions to the Order.
This link contains the LIFE story (pages 173-6) on that final session: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=SE8EAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA173&lpg=PA173&dq=Boyce+brown+alto+sax&source=bl&ots=_QEpuuHPor&sig=TbeyWW0CUzC6-OjG8fS09vtg03k&hl=en&ei=eP9ATvOOHM-whAfYxP2xCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CFsQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=Boyce%20brown%20alto%20sax&f=false.
Note: the link above opens most easily if one is willing to copy it whole and paste it into a new browser; then you will be able to peruse 1953 weekly pictorial journalism, including ads for durable house paint and Blue Cross hospital insurance.
After the session, Boyce went back into the monastery to devote himself to things of the spirit; pictures show him playing music with the other monks and making sandwiches in the kitchen. He remained there until his death three years later. Jim Denham believes that the Servites wouldn’t give Boyce final confirmation as a priest and he died of a heart attack shortly after that bitter disappointment in the monastery outside Granville, Wisconsin.
George Avakian told the late Richard M. Sudhalter in Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS, “Looking back, I think he’s just as interesting now as I thought he was then. The things he did, people are doing that kind of thing much more now. But at that time nobody was: the element of surprise was a big factor. People hearing him for the first time were just flabbergasted. I know I was. Where did this guy get this odd way of playing? Where did it come from? I guess there was a rather mysterious quality in all that. Part of what makes it so interesting.”
Interesting, but tragic as well. In a society that prides itself on cherishing the appearance of individualism, it is sad that Boyce Brown — surely an individualist with something beautiful on his mind — became marginalized as freakish, not only because he looked different, but because of his piety. And although the jazz world prides itself on music and behaviors that go against the grain; it didn’t always do so effectively in this instance. Thoreau’s different drummer didn’t get the gig.
But perhaps Boyce was fortunate that he had a monastery to retreat to, and spiritual things to which he could devote himself. I think ruefully that had he been born fifty years later, he might have borne the weight of the popular-psychological tags we now take for granted. Would we have classified him as a depressive, as differently abled, as someone suffering from social phobia, someone exhibiting Asperger’s, a victim of low self-esteem? Birdlike and half-blind, he seems to me a creative spirit who turned away from this coarse world of fleshly realities to contemplate larger things, someone who wanted to do good for those who could not help themselves.
This post would not have been possible without the information from and gracious help of Jim Denham, Jeff Crompton, Robert Pruter, Robert L. Campbell, Konrad Nowakowski, Tom Kelly, Hank O’Neal, Hal Smith, David J. Weiner, and Aunt Ida Melrose. I have remembered (perhaps hazily) information I read long ago in Dave Dexter, Jr.’s THE JAZZ STORY, and a February 1999 profile in THE MISSISSIPPI RAG, whose author I cannot trace. If any JAZZ LIVES readers have more information or links to people who knew or knew of Boyce, I would be delighted to read their comments or to incorporate them into a future post. Boyce Brown deserves more than partial oblivion.