Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lawrence – My Hometown

Lennie’s on the Turnpike

Richard E. Noble

Being a jazz buff from early on my favorite nightspot was Lennie’s on the Turnpike. When all my friends were into the Beatles and Elvis, I was buying albums by Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. I was listening to Peggy Lee, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Ella Fitzgerald when my contemporaries were listening to Janis Joplin, the Monkeys, the Beach Boys and the Dave Clark Five. My older brother Ernie got me hooked by introducing me to disk jockeys like Bill Marlowe on W-I-L-D – music spelled m–u-s-i-c not n-o-i-s-e – and late night Norm Nathan on WHDH with his Sounds in the Night.

Lennie’s on the Turnpike was owned by Lennie Sogoloff. He was a record salesman for Columbia Records in his early days. The Route 1 turnpike was originally called the Newburyport turnpike and Lennie’s club was technically located in Peabody. It was a tiny place sandwiched in between a trailer park and a truck rental. The inside was cramped and had low ceilings and small area tables. Herb Pomeroy’s big band would blow you to another level – Buddy Rich and Woody Herman were even more dynamic. It was often asked of Lennie how he could afford to have these big bands at his tiny club. The band took up half the room. Lennie said that if there were ten or fifteen guys who could drink more booze than the Buddy Rich Band, let him know because he would hire them also.

Lennie started out in the nightclub business with Penny Abell at the Paddock Club in West Peabody. Lennie’s, originally called the Turnpike Club opened in 1951. Lenny bought Abell out in 1953. The club was destroyed by a fire in 1971 and Lennie then went to Danvers and opened the Village Green. Lennie donated all of his memorabilia to Salem State College. It is told that comedian Jay Leno got his start at Lennie’s. He approached Lennie and asked if he ever thought of having a comedian warm up the crowd. Lennie auditioned Leno on the spot and hired him.

At Lennie’s I saw many jazz greats perform. I saw pianist Theloneous Monk, and a young drummer by the name of Allen Dawson. Alan was associated with Berklee College of Music in Boston and filling in on the drums at Lennie’s in his free time. He would often appear with Illinois Jacquet and Milt Buckner. Buckner played the organ and Jacquet the sax. Those guys would go crazy. They were professional showmen as well as musicians. Dawson was the “house drummer” at Lennie’s from 1963 to 1970. I was lucky enough to see and hear in person pianist Ahmad Jamal, the Modern Jazz Quartet featuring vibraphonist, Milt Jackson and bassist Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson and Miles Davis, Earl Fatha Hines, Rolland Kirk and his multiple horns, and Kenny Burrell. Kenny like Dawson was just a young man and he often conducted matinee teach-ins or workshops for young aspiring guitarists. Dawson did the same for drummers.

I had an interesting experience on a trip out to route 1 to listen to Miles Davis one evening. On most evenings at Lenny’s there was no door charge. I would get one of Lenny’s famous roast beef sandwiches with a kosher dill pickle or the equally delicious corned beef on rye, buy a few beers and enjoy the music. On the night that Miles Davis was appearing, there was a very large black dude collecting money at the entrance. This night there was an extreme 5 dollar door charge. In the past I had paid a dollar or two once in a while but never anything as outrageous as 5 dollars. But, of course, Miles Davis was a well known trumpeter even “way back then.” I had several Miles Davis albums at home. I was reluctant to pay 5 bucks but this was something special. Miles was considered an unusually gifted jazz talent.

After paying my five dollars and finding a seat, I ordered my sandwich and waited for the performance to begin. I sat through the first set listening to a very disturbing man at the bar rant, rave and laugh to the distraction of everyone. To compound this annoyance there was no Miles Davis. The Miles Davis side men were doing the entertaining.

Lenny, the owner, was a serious jazz music fan. I had been there many nights when he stepped to the microphone and asked the “tourists” who were not interested in the music to mosey on down the road. I admired Lenny for taking such a stand. But where was he on this evening?

The second set started and once again no Miles Davis and the disturbing man at the bar continued to act up. Finally I had enough. I headed for the door. I stopped at the bar and spoke to the manager.

“I am not happy” I told him. “I came here to listen to Miles Davis. I was even willing to pay the unusual five dollar charge at the door. I have been here for two sets and I have not heard Miles Davis yet. His backup group might have been entertaining enough if you quieted down the loudmouthed over the other side of the bar who has been spoiling the whole show. I am very surprised to see that, here at Lennie’s of all places, this is allowed to happen. You guys are usually Johnny-on-the-spot with these sorts of annoying clowns. What is going on here tonight? Is this the new Lennies or what? Where the heck is Miles Davis and why don’t you shut up that guy over there.”

The guy behind the bar pursed his lips and looked at me with obvious frustration. “That ‘disturbing drunk’ over there is Miles Davis.” He then shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

On the way out I went up to the giant, black bouncer who was still collecting money. “Excuse me,” I said. “I gave you five dollars on the way in as a payment to listen to Miles Davis play his trumpet. Miles Davis didn’t play. I would like my five dollars back.”

I suddenly found myself surrounded by several other black Miles Davis henchmen. I was very sure that the man holding my five dollars didn’t need their help. The large black fellow holding my five dollars and many other five dollar contributions, went on to explain to me that it was not under his authority to give any money back. He only made collections and was not in charge of refunds. I would have to discuss that with the management. I decided to go away. That was one of my wiser choices. I have made several worse choices in similar circumstances.

I stopped buying Miles Davis albums and didn’t buy another for over thirty years. That was one of my bad decisions. Those albums from that period are now collector’s items.

But on another occasion Peter Shaheen and I sat in the parking lot drinking beer and listening to the Stan Kenton band … for free. That was worth more than the five bucks I lost on Miles. The place was mobbed and we couldn’t get inside. So we decided to hang out in the dirt parking lot. The music was exploding from inside. It could be heard a mile away, I’m sure. There was even a waitress assigned to the parking area. It was a great night, me and Peter sitting on the hood of my car, drinking cold beer and listening to the Stan Kenton Band. We couldn’t see the band or Stan but could we ever hear them. Fantastic!

Other than the Miles Davis experience, Lenny’s on the Turnpike has been one of my fondest memories. If it weren’t for Lennie’s unique relationship with all these jazz superstars, I never would have had the opportunity to listen to any of those great musicians in person. It was quite and experience. I never ate Lennie’s famous chili but I loved the roast beef on rye with the crunchy kosher dill pickle.

Post Script:

Believe it or not Lenny Sogoloff has recently contacted me. I’ve talked to him on the phone a couple of times. He was not happy with the above story and took issue with several of the points in my story:

First: he did not sell records for Columbia. He sold for Independent Records and Atlantic.

Two: Though he did give Jay Leno his start, it did not happen as I described it. (These two “facts” I got off the internet. So much for the internet.)

Three: Lenny was adamant in denying the veracity of my sad tale about Miles Davis. Lenny said that such a thing could never have happened. Miles was a gentleman and would never have acted as I described in this story. “It just never happened,” he said. There was one evening that Miles didn’t play but the man at the door was instructed not to collect any money. The “side men” who played for Miles Davis in those days evolved into some of the biggest names in jazz.

So much for my five dollars. I know, I know … five dollars, my God!

I am not going to argue or belabor this point. Maybe I was just having a bad night, who knows. I did not write this story to disparage Lennie’s on the Turnpike or Miles Davis. I loved going to Lennie’s and I hunt for old Miles Davis albums today. I have several of Miles Davis’ albums in my old LP collection. “Sketches of Spain” is one of my favorites.

Lennie’s was one of the big highlights of my life. If it weren’t for Lennie’s on the turnpike I would never have had the opportunity to see and listen to some of the greatest and most famous Jazz artists who ever lived. I was thrilled to have been around and able to enjoy and appreciate the experience.

Lennie is now 88 years old and still producing Jazz shows for his friends at the “Home.” His mind is sharp and clear and he remembers everything. He is a tough guy to argue with, especially when it comes to Jazz or “the Club.”

I talked with him a couple of times now on the phone and I think he has forgiven me my trespasses. He is a very gracious man with a great sense of humor.
He has been telling me some wonderful stories about “the Club” and the great Jazz names who played there. He has promised to call and chat with me again. I’m thrilled. Thanks for the memories, Lennie. I really do appreciate it.

PS: I’m sure happy I spelled his name correctly.

1 comment:

Bookmark said...

I was born in Lawrence in 1939. Lived there until I graduated HS, Lawrence High and joined the Navy.

I was doing some research on Lawrence to use in a comment in the Letters to the Editor of my local paper, San Antonio, and found your book. I had hoped to download it to my Nook but will have to settle for hard copy. I'm looking forward to reading it.

At first glance, you sound to be a conservative. We must have all left N.E. for warmer climates. I like your taste in music, it's similar to mine. The most exciting place I visited was the Little Brown Jug and went to the Commodore Ballroom, once. I worked after school and always had 3 jobs during the summer. I'm a Newbury St girl and the house I lived in was demolished long ago. Years ago, one of my sisters, they all live in N.H., took me to Lawrence and I couldn't believe what it had become. Nasty.

I'm happy to have found the book and look forward to reading it.

Cam (Carnevale) Pilcher