The Winikers: A Lineage of Great Jazz7 minute read

I first heard trumpeter Bo and drummer Bill Winiker play at a wedding in the late 1970s and they were terrific. They swung like crazy and seemed to know any tune anyone wanted to hear. In a recent conversation with the brothers, I found out they’d been playing professionally since they were 10 (Bo) and 13 (Bill) years old. In fact, thanks in large part to the talent and vision of their dad Ed, some combination of the Winiker family has been playing quality music in New England since the 1940s.

Ed’s story alone is fascinating. Born in 1921, he grew up on a chicken farm in Medfield, a distant suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. He climbed onto a piano stool when he was three years old and had the uncanny ability to pick out the melodies he heard being played on the radio. The family nurtured his talent and Ed organized his first band in junior high school. Unfortunately, the principal, Clyde Brown, called the music “blasphemy!” and banned the group from playing at the school. They skirted the pious Mr. Brown and continued to practice at the family’s farm.

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Ed’s reputation grew and when he was in high school, he played in the band of Henry Brigode and later with Harrington’s New Englanders. Both groups were what we now call “territory” bands; they did gigs all over a certain part of the country, but didn’t go national.

Original Winiker Family Band Bill Winiker
The Winiker Family Band: Ed, Annette, Bo, and Bill. (photos courtesy Bill Winiker)

When it came time to choose a college to attend, Ed decided on the University of Alabama—a less unlikely choice than it might seem. Although I’ve had difficulty finding details about this, Bo and Bill described to me a national collegiate jazz contest that was a big deal in the 1930s and ’40s; a contest judged by people like Duke Ellington and Charlie Barnett, with the winning band awarded a summer-long gig at the Hollywood Beach Hotel in Florida. They said that U. Alabama was a perennial force in this contest and kept an eye open for talent coming from any part of the country. In a process that sounded to me a little bit like what happens with athletes, U. Alabama “drafted” Ed to come to the college. No doubt part of the enticement was that the school jazz band played gigs all over the South and band members were able to keep whatever they earned.

This contest apparently brought Charlie Barnett into contact with Ed and he must have liked what he heard, because he asked him to join his band and Ed took a year off to tour with Barnett. This, by the way, did not make his parents happy. However, Ed clearly had a sense of responsibility toward his family, as when his father died, he returned to help run the chicken farm in Medfield. He still managed to play, forming a George Shearing-style quartet that gigged in the early 1950s, with Jimmy Richardson on vibes, Jimmy Lester on bass, and Tap McCarthy on drums.

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In 1954, Hurricane Carol roared through New England and completely wiped out all the chicken houses on the Winiker farm, putting them out of business. One might not necessarily think of it this way, but Bo Winiker called it a “lucky break,” meaning that this natural catastrophe had freed his dad to pursue full time his dream of having a family band.

All the threads of Ed’s life contributed to making this happen.

The Winikers: A Lineage of Great Jazz
Bo, Ed, and Bill

For one thing, he was a representative of the Gretsch drum company, assigned to accompany Gretsch drummers when they came to the area. This meant that the boys were able to hang out with the likes of Mel Lewis, Jimmy Cobb, and Elvin Jones. The young Bill’s first pair of drum sticks were given to him by drummer Marcus Foster, who played with Billy Taylor, George Shearing, and others. As far as Bo and the trumpet goes, Ed was also a distributor of Couesnon brass instruments. After Bo saw a demonstration of instruments at his junior high, he went home and reported that he wanted to play the trumpet. Ed went right out to the car and, from a stash of instruments, brought Bo his first horn, a Couesnon trumpet.

Finally, to get his wife Annette into the band, Ed got her a string bass for Mother’s Day, which she had never played, but picked up quickly. It turned out to be a much better investment than the washing machine she initially said she wanted.

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Another link in the musical chain was that Ed worked for Mutual Distributors, which handled many of the major jazz labels. Bill vividly remembers a steady flow of recordings coming into the house; especially rare recordings from the West Coast by people whose music he still loves, like the Condoli brothers and Jack Sheldon. According to Bill, there were speakers in every room of the house, playing jazz 24-7. He notes that occasionally, more clamorous avant-garde jazz would come on the radio in the middle of the night, waking people and resulting in angrily pulled-out speaker cables that Bill would have to re-attach the next day.

The Winikers: A Lineage of Great JazzOf course, the boys also took private music lessons, but the most important of all the links in the musical chain was the family’s daily rehearsal schedule. It’s hard to imagine better training for a life in music than the one Ed provided for his two boys and his wife. Every evening after dinner, seven days a week, the family would adjourn for a two-to-three hour musical session. Each session included learning one new jazz tune, as well as a variety of other kinds of music that Ed insisted the boys learn. When either of the boys heard a song they liked on the radio (this is the late-1950s-early 1960s), they would tell Ed, who would transcribe it and teach it to the group. Over the course of just a couple of years, the boys got about a thousand songs under their belts. It’s no wonder that throughout their professional careers, the Winikers were able to play any tune anyone requested. It’s a point of pride for Bo and Bill that even today, if requested, they are ready to play Beyonce or Lady Gaga tunes.

The Winikers: A Lineage of Great JazzEd had started a group with a Horace Silver-type lineup-two horns and rhythm section-in 1957, which included some of the best jazz players in Boston. The trumpet player George Doren is someone who Bo says “could play just like Fats Navarro,” but when Ed thought his family was ready, he let those professionals go and started over with his all-family band. When he went to gigs with this entirely new group, with two young teenagers and his wife, venue managers were skeptical. Ed told the managers that the band would play the gig and if they didn’t give satisfaction, they would not have to get paid. Turns out that eventuality never came to pass. Ed had created a professional group, able to play jazz and any other popular musical forms of the day.

The boys went off to college—Bo to New England Conservatory (NEC) and Bill to Boston Conservatory—but both continued to play in the Winiker family band. However, in 1972, while still at NEC, Bo got a call to sub in the Stan Kenton band for trumpeter Raymond “Ray” Brown. It worked out so well that Kenton asked him to join the band. Bo was a little torn, but consulted NEC president Gunther Schuller, who encouraged him to take time off from school and go. Ultimately, Bo forged a 28-year relationship with musician/author/ composer/conductor/educator Schuller and he now says: “He was like a second father to me.” So, in 1972, for about six months, Bo left home for the first time and played the jazz chair in Kenton’s band.

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According to Bo, his absence from the family band had an up side. He had served as his family group’s MC, introducing the tunes and relating to the audience, but during his absence, Bill took over that job and both brothers were able to develop a skill that any bandleader should have and which the brothers effectively continue to ply.

The Winikers: A Lineage of Great JazzThen, Bo took one more side-track. In 1972, Schuller had acquired the original turn-of-the-20th century arrangements for Scott Joplin ragtime material, called the Red Back Book. Bo didn’t go to the original auditions, but Schuller arranged another audition just for him and subsequently asked him to join the 12-member student ensemble. It was a group that helped spark the Ragtime revival in America. They won a Grammy and travelled all over the world, spreading the Ragtime gospel.

At this point, the mid-’70s, Ed Winiker had another vision that would propel his family to the next level. Ed’s idea was to re-create the classics of the Swing Era using a group much smaller than a big band—three horns and three rhythm. The idea was to have trumpets doubling saxes when necessary and vice versa. It meant that all the horns would be playing most of the time, but it would provide a much fuller sound, able to deliver the impact of the original versions. Ed worked with Skip Potter to skillfully craft the necessary arrangements, but not everyone was on board. Bo was skeptical of the idea and didn’t go to the first rehearsals. However, after he heard how well the sound turned out, he was ready to play.

The band started to get work and ended up doing a Thursday night gig at a place called the Pub ’n’ Grub in downtown Boston. The band initiated a Swing Night, which grew weekly in popularity, as more and more people turned out to listen and to dance. A casual invitation to attend the gig made by Bo at a dinner party piqued the interest of two people who were there, David Callela and Nancy Grier, both of whom were associated with the Parker House hotel in Boston. They started showing up at the Pub ’n’ Grub gig and fell in love with what they saw and heard.

Callela and Grier brought Ed in to meet Robert Mackintosh, General Manager of the Parker House, who decided to book the band into a club in the hotel called The Last Hurrah. It was 1977 and it turned out to be the start of a 14-year tenure. During this period, Ed became Music Director of the hotel, booking all the rooms and functions and the Winiker circle of musicians grew from four people to 50. Bo, Bill, and Ed each formed bands and mom retired from the bass to become the business manager. The Winikers were at the center of musical life in the Boston Metro area and an important part of a national trend. Notwithstanding the popularity of disco, the Winikers helped swing to re-emerge as a vital part of America’s popular music culture.

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In 1991, the Parker House gig came to a last hurrah, if you will. However, over the last twenty years, the Winikers continued playing a wide range of gigs, including the Inauguration Ball of President Bill Clinton in 1993. Mollie Malone, who was their lead vocalist for 18 years around this time, joined them for the occasion. The brothers are comfortable playing in the Trad style, often sitting in with Eli Newberger’s Hot Six. (Early on, Bo apparently drove his family crazy playing “Hello Dolly”’ hundreds of times.)

Bo at Symphony Hall
Bo at Symphony Hall

The brothers have been mainstays of jazz brunches around town, holding down long residences at several area restaurants. These brunches provide an opportunity to expose people to the music whose first reaction is often: “I don’t like jazz.” Unfortunately, this is especially true among young people, but the brothers’ philosophy is that if they can get people into the seats, listening to the band playing standards, Bill keeping steady and tasteful time and Bo soloing and singing in a melodic, Chet Baker-esque style, they will probably change their minds. Bill says: “Jazz has lost a lot of people who say they don’t understand it, but when they come, they say ‘We didn’t know it, but I guess we do like jazz.’”

Ed died in 1997 and, happily, Annette is still alive. Bill and Bo are sincere in their belief that they owe everything they’ve achieved to their parents. They cite mom’s dictum “It doesn’t cost you anything extra to be nice” and dad’s injunction to “Do a great job every time you go out to perform.” Two of the most generous, nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, the Winikers are humble about their success, saying: “We’ve been lucky and had a lot of breaks.” Maybe, but because of their intense study and devotion to the music and their passion to communicate, they’ve been ready to seize the moment and make those breaks happen. Generations of Boston music lovers can attest to that.

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