The Measure of a Jazz Fan: Before The Press Room
Tom Barron Talking with Mike Guy
Tom Barron's enjoying an amazing life. He's a husband, a father, a retired commercial airline pilot, and he plays the trumpet. He's also one of the most enthusiastic jazz fans you'll ever meet.
Over the last 35 or so years, I've probably talked to Tom a couple of dozen times, and whenever I do, I walk away with a smile on my face and the need to hear some music.
His interest in jazz began when he saw “Young Man with a Horn” at either the Civic or Colonial theater in Portsmouth in 1950. He was 15 years old. I knew then, that's what I wanted to do.
In January of 2020, I was privileged to talk with Tom Barron and the Seacoast Jazz Society's Terry MacDonald about jazz in the Portsmouth area from the 1950s onward. Terry wasn't living in the area then and I might've been a gleam in my parents’ eyes, so we'll let Tom solo for the early years.
When talking about how he went from watching Kirk Douglas in black and white to listening to and playing jazz, I assumed he played in the Portsmouth High School Band.
No, it was just a bunch of guys. I didn't play with the regular marching band, I played with the jazz group. We weren't a part of the school band, but the kids liked us a lot. It was Tom Jones, bass; Dave Trefethen, guitar; Jim Trefethen, sax; me on trumpet; and Dick Shamrell on drums. What a guitarist. And others too.
How did you learn to play, lessons?
Ahh, I took a couple lessons from a guy named Zippy Sargent. That wasn't for me. I just learned myself.
The Jones Family lived in the Historic Cutts Mansion on Maplewood Avenue in Portsmouth. The same Jones family that gave us the respected Seacoast area vocalist, Sharon Jones. I'm told that Sharon was a little young to be playing with Tom and the big kids in those days, but her older sister Jeanne was often in the mix. The family had a huge room where they hosted regular jam sessions on Monday and Tuesday nights. Jeanne Jones sang with Paul Earl, piano; Tom “Tones” Jones, bass; and other local musicians came and went. Tom graduated from high school in 1955 and reports the jams started in the early ’50s.
Terry asked Tom where else he played in those days. He thought, laughed hard, thought some more, and told us:
There were frat parties all the time. We played UNH almost every week, and then the word spread. We had a ball. We get calls to go up to Colby and Bates. They'd give us a bottle of booze and some money for gas. We had a cold car, but we had a good time.
The cold car gigs were usually some configuration of Paul Earl, piano; Tom Jones, bass; Tom Barron, trumpet; Jim Trefethen, sax; Dave Trefethen, guitar; and Dick Shamrell, drums.
When asked about jazz venues in those days:
When I was in high school, I'd go down to Shannon's in Salisbury. Les Harris, Sr. played there Friday and Saturday nights. They'd have the good Boston players come up. I'd go down and get a coke and listen to them. Shannon's was the jazz place.
There was a place on Vaughn Street, The Fleet Reserve I think, they had jazz. A bunch of us were playing there one night, and Tommy Gallant yells to me to get down behind the piano, quick. I did, and there was a big fight. They were throwing things and yelling. I think Tommy saved my life that night.
In Rye, there was the Southwind Chinese restaurant. The owner was Richie Ng. He loved jazz. I saw Gene Krupa, Jimmy Rushing, and Bobby Hackett there. Bobby's voice was like a Boston gangster. One night he asked me, "Ya' wanna' play my horn?" I didn't do it.
Tommy Gallant played the piano at the Rockingham Hotel for years. He dominated that place and usually had Smiley Trefethen with him on bass. He was a great bass player.
After Tom gave us that rundown, he burst into laughter:
Bobby Hackett was diabetic and was not supposed to drink. One night he and Smiley Trefethen are at the bar in the Southwind. Smiley says to Bobby, “isn't that your wife coming in?” Instantly, Bobby slides his beer all the way down the bar like in a western movie.
How did you listen to music at home in the 1950s?
Session's music store on Daniel Street. You'd take a record and go into a booth to hear it. I remember listening to “Clifford Brown with Strings” for the first time in a record booth at Session's. I still have the record. We played records a lot. I had the radio too, but there was not a lot of the jazz we liked.
We have musicians and audiences. Typically, musicians can be a part of an audience, but the number of audience members that play and understand music is comparatively small. Cats like Tom Barron and Terry MacDonald get it.
When Tom was flying commercial airliners for a living, he always traveled with a horn. When he was overnight in a city, he'd be out listening. If the scene was right, he'd bring his horn and sometimes got to play. He loves the music, and knowing how to play makes him a more knowledgeable fan of the music. To me, that's a good measure of appreciation.
This is the first of at least two short articles to be culled from my afternoon with Tom and Terry. Next month we get into the ’70s and ’80s, the start of The Press Room era. I've heard there may be some recordings from The Press Room and other venues over the years, even one of Tom and his crew playing with Jeanne Jones back in the day. Stay tuned for more tales from Tom.