Howard "Howie" Jefferson - Biography
Howard "Howie" Jefferson

B:  April 22nd, 1914 - Worcester, MA
D:  June 20th, 1981 - Worcester, MA
Instrument:  Tenor Sax

In an interview in Worcester Magazine, jazz great Jaki Byard is quoted as saying: "Yeah, Howie Jefferson. He's sort of my mentor, you know. He's the one that brought me into this business. He's the one that got me to play trumpet with the Nighthawks... Then the piano player quit, so they asked me to play because I used to tinkle around a bit. So I ended up playing piano."

By all accounts, Howard "Howie" Jefferson was one of the most revered musicians in Central Massachusetts. His prodigious aural memory and beautifully crafted improvisations are legendary. Although he was often asked to travel with touring jazz bands (including the Count Basie Orchestra), he preferred to stay in his hometown of Worcester, MA to be close to his family. Here, he created his own artistic space, being a founding member of one of the very first "jazz cooperatives" in America, the Saxtrum Club.

Howie Jefferson was born in the Laurel/Clayton area of Worcester on April 22, 1914. His father, Corbett Jefferson, was a well-known area pianist who performed and traveled often in the 1920s with his trio, which consisted of Corbett Jefferson on piano, a guitar, and drums.

Howie Jefferson began playing alto saxophone at age 15. The used $80 alto saxophone was a birthday gift from his grandmother. His first teacher was Gus Wilback with whom he studied for less than two years. Within a short time, Jefferson formed his first band with Bill Tony (drums), Judie Wade (bass), Alice Price (piano) and lifelong friend Barney Price (trumpet). He later studied clarinet with Bob Giddings.

In 1929 at age 15, Howie Jefferson joined drummer Boots Ward and the Nite Hawks, an ensemble that was formed in the mid-1920's as one of Worcester's first jazz bands. The group was later led by Ray Schuyler and taken over by Schuyler's cousin, Freddie Bates (tenor saxophone), after Ward's premature death. The drum seat was filled by Bill Toney and occasionally by Ed Shamgochian (see Photo Gallery). Jefferson and his close boyhood friend, trumpeter Barney Price, remained with the Nite Hawks for nearly 10 years. Under Bates' direction this group also included John Byard (father of Jaki Byard) and featured arrangements by the 16 year old Jaki Byard who occasionally played trumpet and piano with the band. The group worked two nights a week at Lunt's Pavilion in Sterling, MA, providing Jefferson with some of his very first professional engagements (see Photo Gallery). The Nite Hawks performed often in Boots Ward's Nile Cafe on Summer Street in Worcester, which is reported to be the only jazz venue in Worcester owned by an African American during this time. Freddie Bates and the Nite Hawks played for a live radio broadcast each Thursday from 7:00-7:15 p.m. on WORC radio in Worcester. There are no known recordings of these radio performances. The band broke up when Freddie Bates was Inducted into the armed services In 1943.

In 1938, Jefferson founded the "Saxtrum Club" along with six other Worcester musicians: Barney Price, Dick Murray, Ralph Briscott, Jaki Byard, Ed Shamgochian, and Harold Black. (In a 1998 interview with Chet Williamson of Worcester Magazine, Jaki Byard claimed to have created the name of this club using the first letters from the instruments of the two prime movers, Howie Jefferson, SAXophone and Barney Price, TRUMpet.) The Saxtrum Club was located on the corner of Glenn and Clayton Streets in Worcester. For nearly ten years this cooperative hosted nightly jam sessions and was a magnet for regional players and visiting national artists as an after-hours jam venue. Worcester natives Barbara Carroll, Don Asher, Don Fagerquist and Jaki Byard (who reportedly often played through the night) were regulars at the Saxtrum Club. (see Links)

After their performances in high profile downtown Worcester venues like the Plymouth Theater (late 1930s) and the Warren Hotel (after 1945), many jazz artists of national stature performed with locals at the Saxtrum Club in late night jam sessions. According to Worcester Telegram and Gazette columnist Ev Skehan, such well known jazz figures as Gene Krupa, Roy Eldridge, Chu Berry, Anita O'Day, Cozy Cole, Cab Calloway, Lucky Millander, Fats Waller, Charlie Ventura, Don Byas, Joe Venuti and Frank Sinatra all visited the Saxtrum Club. While stationed at Fort Devens, Al Hirt came regularly for two years to play at the Saxtrum club. Unfortunately, no recordings were ever made at the club. Howie Jefferson's desire for playing jam sessions with regional and visiting traveling musicians remained a life-long passion.

A permanent ensemble was formed from players at the Saxtrum Club, which was led by drummer Tommie Collins. Howie Jefferson played on and off with this group for a few years. Eventually this band was taken over and led by drummer Roscoe Blunt Jr. (a 1949 graduate of the New England Conservatory's Percussion Department). The name was changed to the Rockie Blunt All-Stars. Personnel included Rockie Blunt Jr. (drums, vibraphone and arranger), Barney Price (trumpet and occasional vocals), Howie Jefferson (tenor saxophone), Morgan Sorrell (bass and vocals) and various pianists including Don Asher and Chet Lavallee (see Photo Gallery). Aside from the high level of musicianship and inspired performances, this group is historically significant for two reasons:

1. The Rockie Blunt All-Stars was the first "mixed race group" to play jazz publicly in Worcester. They performed in venues with an audience policy of "whites only" as well as in establishments owned by African Americans and those that allowed for racially mixed audiences. It is an unfortunate fact that Worcester remained a very racially biased city for many years. In fact, in October of 1924 (the year before Rockie Blunt was born), there was a large gathering of the KKK and the Kleagles in Worcester. Racial tensions remained high for several decades. (see Photo Gallery.)

2. This ensemble is believed to be one of the first Worcester based jazz groups to record. In 1948 and 1949, The Rockie Blunt All-Stars made a series of live recordings from the stage of Nelson's Flamingo Lounge located on the corner of Main Street and Lunenberg Street, Moran Sq. in Fitchburg, MA. A Meisnner "flat disc" recorder and a single microphone were used for these recordings. (see Audio Clips.)

From 1947 through the 1950's the Rockie Blunt All-Stars played in many concert settings and night clubs for white or black patrons. They often performed in Worcester's predominantly black neighborhood in such jazz venues as the Valhalla (Summer Street) and the Chicken Coop (Summer Street), which was owned by the Moffett family from the mid-1930's until the mid-1950's. (Pianist Mamie Moffitt led one of Worcester's very first jazz bands in the 1920's called "The 5 Jazz Hounds".) Another popular jazz night spot in the Summer Street area during the 1940's and 1950's was the Quinsigamond Elks Lodge #173 IBPOE, referred to as the "Black Elks", where Howie Jefferson often played. It is assumed that he may have played at other black venues during that time such as Dominic's Cafe (Clayton/Laurel area of Worcester), Tiny's Carousel (Route 9) and the Blue Marlin (Harding Street, Worcester).

In 1961 Howie Jefferson played tenor saxophone in the Okie Menard Orchestra for 30 consecutive weeks at the Fox Lounge (Route 9, Westboro, MA).

Jefferson created a short-lived trio of saxophone, organ and drums in 1962 called Jeff's Trio.

Jefferson put together a very popular group in 1963 called the Jeff-Tones, which had a seven year stay at The Driftwood (Route 9, Shrewsbury, MA) from April 15, 1963 until June 20, 1970. The members of the group were Jefferson (tenor saxophone and Selmer Varitone electric tenor saxophone), Dick Hill and later, Al Wilson or Bob Cerri on Hammond Organ, and Bob Gould on drums (who was later replaced by Steve Pappas). When Jefferson disbanded the Jeff-Tones, he began working with several area combos.

In the early 1970's, Howie Jefferson performed with a group called Soul Jazz, which featured Al Mueller on piano, Barney Price on trumpet, Barney's son Elwood "Bunny" Price on bass, and Bobby Gould on drums. For three years they played Friday and Saturday nights at King's Corner on Route 13 in Leominster, MA. After Gould's death, the group moved to the Hottentotte (Austin Street, Worcester) and the drum seat was filled by Jefferson's life long friend Reggie Walley. (see Links) The Soul Jazz Quartet and Quintet played weekly in Worcester at various locations, including the Jag Piper (118 Highland Street) and the Depot Lounge, owned by Denis Grosselin (Route 20 Marlboro, MA).

In the Fall of 1971, Jefferson worked with Steve Scott's combo called The Metronomes at the Chateau de Ville lounge, "Le Club" (Route 9, Framingham, MA).

He next formed a new group called the J.M. Quartet, which debuted at the Bronx Lounge on September 25, 1972 (Route 20, Marlboro, MA). In addition to Jefferson, the group members were Ernie Donais (guitar), Kenny DeRosier (accordion) and Al Menard (drums). Their last performance in this venue was February 6, 1973.

In 1974, Jefferson played with the Soul Jazz Quartet three nights a week at the Lafayette Lounge in Gardner, MA.

With organist George Pearson's trios and quartets (which always included drummer Sam Ellcock), Howie Jefferson played at the Bonfire (Route 9, Westboro, Ma) four nights a week from September 3, 1975 until June 26, 1976. Then, on July 18, 1976 Jefferson began playing with the Frank Padula Quartet two nights a week at Nick's Lounge in the Primrose Motel (Route 140 in Upton, MA). He did his last performance with this group on June 31, 1980.

In 1980, Jefferson began playing with the Conte brothers, Jay (guitar) and Bob (bass). The band worked at the Driftwood (Route 9, Shrewsbury, MA), Sea and Surf (Route 9, Framingham, MA) and the High Hat and the Savoy on Massachusetts Ave. in Boston. While playing at the J/B Railstop in Brookfield, MA they made a series of recordings (see Audio Clips).

On May 30, 1980, Howie Jefferson recorded "Second Time Around" with Joanne Barnard at the Long View Recording Studio in North Brookfield, MA (see Audio Clips).

Shortly then after, on June 14, 1980 Jefferson began a stay at the Salem Cross Inn (Route 9, North Brookfield, MA) with Bill Fanning on organ and Tony Nash on drums. This group recorded live at the Salem Cross Inn (see Audio Clips).

Howie Jefferson continued playing many regularly scheduled jam sessions throughout his career. He was either in the house band or sat in often at venues such as: the Wigwam in the Hotel Lincoln in Ayer, MA on Sunday afternoons in the late 1940's and early 1950s; McCann's Café in Leominster, MA which featured an all star band with Jefferson, Boots Mussulli (saxophone), Frankie Capp (drums), Joe Roland, Morgan Sorrell (bass) and Howard McKee; and later, the Fox Lounge in Westboro, MA and two Worcester clubs owned by jazz drummer Reggie Walley, The Kitty Kat (252 Main Street) and The Hottentotte (Austin Street).

After learning of his severe illness, the AME Zion Church (21 Belmont Street, Worcester) held a tribute concert for Howie Jefferson on March 29, 1981, which featured the Soul Jazz Quintet. Although weak, Jefferson was in the audience. Unannounced, Howie Jefferson stood up and played "Just a Closer Walk With Thee". This one hymn was his last public performance (see Photo Gallery).

One June 7, 1981, just 13 days before his death, 600 musicians and friends attended a tribute in his honor held at the Bancroft Club in Auburn, MA. Mayor Jordan Levy presented Jefferson with the key to the city.

Jefferson passed away June 20, 1981 at the age of 67. Several tribute concerts were held in his honor after his death. The Worcester Entertainment Club, supported by the Worcester Musicians' Association, voted Howie Jefferson into their Hall of Fame.

Howie Jefferson left behind one daughter (Cynthia Jefferson Carruthers of Worcester, MA), one son (Carl Jefferson of Florida) and one stepdaughter (Laurce Flint of Columbus, Ohio). Jefferson's last home was at 64 Goldthwaite Road in Worcester.

He is remembered as a consummate musician and an elegant gentleman. His ubiquitous presence and indefatigable musicality and energy were an inspiration to all musicians whose lives he touched. He had a profound impact on the Central Massachusetts jazz scene.


Bliss, Bob. Evening Gazette and Worcester Telegram. 1-2 May 1980.
Blunt, Roscoe Jr. Personal Interview. 8 Oct. 2003.
Carruthers, Cynthia and Jefferson, Carl. Personal family library.
Carruthers, Cynthia.(daughter of Howie Jefferson). Personal Interviews. Oct. 2003.
Gourgouras, James. "Main Street". Worcester Evening Gazette. 5 May 1970.
Gourgouras, James. "Main Street". Worcester Evening Gazette. 9 June 1970.
Gourgouras, James. "Main Street". Worcester Evening Gazette. 30 Nov. 1970.
"Jefferson Lord". Sounds Magazine. Worcester Musicians' Association. Aug. 1968.
Lamson, Leah. "Tempo". Worcester Sunday Telgeram 11 April 1974.
Morgenstern, Dan. "Ready, Willing, And Able: Jaki Byard". Downbeat Magazine. 21 Oct. 1965.
Price, Elwood "Bunny". Personal Interviews. 10 Oct. 2003; 20 Oct. 2003; 24 Oct. 2003.
Talkin' History: Jazz In Worcester Then and Now (Symposium.Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Worcester, MA). Videocassette WCCA TV, 25 Feb. 2001. Video interviews of Central MA jazz artists. Videocassette of panel presentations.
Tubert, Jack. "Night Street".Worcester Evening Gazette 28 March 1971.
Skehan, Everett M. "Worcester Jazz". Worcester Evening Gazette 20 May 1969. Williamson, Chet. "Just a Closer Walk With Thee: Memories of Howard Jefferson".
Nightfall Magazine Oct. 1987.
Williamson, Chet. Personal resource library.
Williamson, Chet. "Requiem for a Cadillac". Worcester Magazine 19 1996.
Worcester Historical Museum Library Archives.

Jefferson,Howard. Rockie Blunt All-Stars. 1948-1949. Recordings provided by Roscoe Blunt Jr. Re-mastered by Michael Drnek. Sept. 2003.
Jefferson,Howard. Recordings provided by Cynthia Carruthers, Carl Jefferson. Used with their permission. Re-mastered by Octavio Casavantes and Michael Drnek. Oct. 2003.
Jefferson,Howard. Recordings provided by Elwood "Bunny" Price and used with his permission. Re-mastered by Joseph Cholorio, Mechanics Hall Productions.

Photos provided by Cynthia Carruthers, Chet Williamson, Roscoe Blunt Jr. and Elwood "Bunny" Price. Personal libraries. Used by permission.

Primary Source Materials:
Howie Jefferson's original performance schedule book written in his own hand, detailing much of his professional performance career. Howie Jefferson's personal writings (in the form of reflections and memoirs written in his own hand) which he called "Howie's Story Through the Years". These were generously shared with the author by Howie Jefferson's daughter, Cynthia (Jefferson) Carruthers.

A VERY SPECIAL THANK YOU to Chet Williamson, Cynthia Carruthers and Elwood "Bunny" Price for their generous contributions to this article.