Remembering Pianist Mabel Robinson Simms

With the passing of Mabel Robinson Simms on January 27, 2005, the New England Jazz Hall of Fame lost a great friend from its early years. Simms, a pianist and singer on the Boston jazz scene for 30 years as well as a tireless organizer, was 91.

Ms. Simms was born in Cape Charles, Virginia on March 29, 1914, and raised in Norfolk, Virginia. Her family moved to Boston in 1931, and it is in Boston where she took up playing the piano seriously. In the late 1930s, while still holding down a day job as a waitress at Slade’s, she started working as a single at the Monterey Cafe on Columbus Avenue. In 1940 she joined the group at Johnny Wilson’s Swanee Grill. In 1941, leading a group at the Paradise Grill near Scollay Square, she hired a 16-year-old drummer from Roxbury named Roy Haynes for his first professional job. In 1944 she went to New York; Sammy Davis Sr. helped her get her first job there, and she began a lasting friendship with entertainer Pearl Bailey.

She returned to Boston, where her career thrived in clubs like Little Dixie, where she accompanied singers including Hazel Diaz and Novella Taylor, and the Monte Cristo. In 1950 she began her run at Boston’s celebrated after-hours spot, the Pioneer Club, where she both led the house trio and played intermission piano when the likes of Art Tatum stopped by. She stayed at the Pioneer until 1955. She worked for a time as the intermission pianist at the Hi-Hat in 1954.

In 1956 and 1957 her trio, with her sister Frances Brown on cocktail drums and bassist Bill Tanner, worked regularly at the Baby Grand and the Big M. In 1958 she began her ten-year association with the Moulin Rouge in the Hotel Vendome in the Back Bay. She retired from active performing in 1968.

Ms. Simms was active in benefit work after retirement, and was one of the original performers in Steppin’ Out, the annual benefit for the Dimock Community Health Center in Boston.

Ms. Simms was active in Local 535 of the American Federation of Musicians, which she joined in the early 1940s, serving as Secretary later in that decade, and active with the 535 Reunion Committee from the early 1980s on. In recent years she was a member of the New England Jazz Alliance and participated as a voter in the 2001 and 2004 Hall of Fame election cycles—a Hall of Fame to which her own nomination is all but assured.