May Features

C. DeWitt Peterson and the Tri-State Jazz Society

C. DeWitt Peterson, more commonly known as "Pete," is one of the Jazz Warriors who was lucky enough to experience the great players who came to the New York area during the classic jazz heyday. Living only 50 miles from New York City, he got to rub elbows with some of the best, including Art Hodes and Eddie Condon. Before that, however, he listened to juke boxes and the radio.

His father owned a luncheonette/soda fountain called Lake Mohawk's Village Sweet Shop, and it had a juke box that, according to Pete, "never stopped" from 11 a.m. to midnight. It was filled with jazz 78s, and he was blessed with the sounds of Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong , Benny Goodman and Fats Waller. He and his friends also listened to jazz shows broadcast from New York City featuring live performances of trad jazz bands such as that of Art Hodes with a host of great players. They hitchhiked to the city, too, visiting the Commodore Record Shop and playing 78s all day before making a precious purchase.

C. Dewitt "Pete" Peterson and his wife, Joanne (now deceased). They were among the founders of the Tri-State Jazz Society and their efforts helped establish the club's fine reputation.

Pete subscribed to Art Hodes Jazz Record magazine and ordered records by mail from Boris Rose's in Brooklyn. On rare occasions, he and his college friends would go to Greenwich Village, checking out clubs such as Nick's, Eddie Condon's, the Village Gate, and others. Eddie Condon knew Pete and his friends were underage, so when they were at Condon's, he would usually come over to them and say, "Sit at the bar and just drink Coke. Don't get me in trouble." Later, he would usher them to a table when it became available.

Tom Scott, one of Pete's fraternity brothers at Tufts University, was an entertainer. He played piano, sang and was a protégé of "Hum and Strum" (piano, guitar, voices) a group popular in Boston, so the college friends also went to that city for jazz. There they would frequent the Savoy Café, Storyville, The Gardens and other clubs to see Frankie Newton, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Windhurst, and many more. In 1947, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Arvell Shaw, Velma Middleton, Barney Bigard and others played at Symphony Hall, but bebop was just starting to come to Boston.

"I remember pianist Sabby Lewis was a hit with 'Bottoms Up' at that time," Pete says wistfully. "I thought to myself how lucky this man was to have such vivid, detailed memories of this great era, and I thank him for sharing it with all of us."

In the spring of 1953, Pete was in the Navy, stationed in Rhode Island. He continued to make trips to Boston jazz clubs such as Copley Square Hotel's Storyville, with Vic Dickenson, George Wein, Morey Feld, Buzzy Drootin and sometimes Red Allen. Dickenson gave Pete and his friends the task of naming the next tune -- all night long -- which Pete remembers as becoming quite difficult.

Pete, who lives in Morristown, N.J., joined the New Jersey Jazz Society in the 1970s, and traveled to New Jersey to concerts. He also joined the Potomac River Jazz Club and then the Pennsylvania Jazz Society, attending many of their events. In the 1980s, he and Don Robertson, a stalwart in the New Jersey Jazz Society, attempted to expand the New Jersey Jazz Society statewide. "We recruited county reps in each of the 21 counties to recruit members, search for venues and promote the jazz society. It never took off due to lack of interest by top people at that time."

Click ads to enlarge

May 2008 issue | © 2008 The Mississippi Rag

P.O. Box 19068, Minneapolis, MN 55419.