​Jazz on Cape Cod: From Colombo to the Columns

By John Basile, author of ​Jazz on Cape Cod: From Colombo to the Columns

“Jazz on Cape Cod: From Colombo to the Columns” is the story of a special place and a special group of people.

I am a lifelong jazz fan and when I came to Cape Cod in the early 1980s I immediately realized that there was something special going on here. There was a lot of jazz going on, played by first-rate musicians.

As a news editor and reporter on Cape Cod I had the chance to come into contact with a lot of these fine players and learned their stories. As it turned out, virtually all of the great players residing on Cape Cod were what the locals call “washashores.” That is, they came to Cape Cod from somewhere else.

Among these “washashores” were Bobby Hackett, Lou Colombo, Marie Marcus, Dave McKenna, Dick Wetmore and others who had the talent to perform anywhere in the world, yet chose to make Cape Cod their home.
Most of these people came from big cities and the chance to live near the ocean was attractive to them.
The Cape has a long history in relation to jazz. As far back as the 1920s, Bournehurst-On-The-Canal in Buzzards Bay presented top name bands coming to prominence as the Swing Era began. Duke Ellington made frequent stops there as did other nationally known bands. Bournehurst was a classic dancehall where people could stroll along the Cape Cod Canal when they weren’t inside dancing.

Later, other venues emerged as places where jazz was king. The Columns in West Dennis flourished in the 1970s and ‘80s. The internationally revered pianist Dave McKenna (who lived not far from the Columns) played there often as a sort of house pianist and top name jazz musicians from around the country were booked there often. I recall seeing the great jazz trumpeter Clark Terry at the Columns and greats including Maynard Ferguson, Ray Brown, Laurindo Almeida and many others played there. For one memorable summer at the Columns McKenna was joined by pianist Teddy Wilson who rose to prominence in the 1930s as a member of Benny Goodman’s trio and quartet. McKenna and Wilson would each play a set, then close the evening with two-piano duets. This was the kind of sophisticated jazz more typical of New York or Chicago, but for one magic summer, there it was on Cape Cod.

Lou Colombo became a legend on Cape Cod. A gifted trumpet player, he had the ability to perform convincingly in virtually any jazz style. In addition to his talent as a musician, Colombo also possessed the ability to connect with his audience, whether he was playing a major concert or doing a gig in a local senior center.
The “First Lady of Jazz on Cape Cod” was Marie Marcus. A piano player whose roots were in the Dixieland and stride styles, she was among the few women to make a career as an instrumentalist in the middle of the 20th century and she did it with a combination of fine piano technique and, as with Lou Colombo, an outgoing personality.

The list of jazz greats who made Cape Cod home goes on.

Bobby Hackett played a sophisticated brand of jazz trumpet, and made Cape Cod his home for the last years of his life.

The same could be said for Ruby Braff, who traveled to kids around the country and overseas from his Cape Cod home.

Dick Wetmore was a pioneer of the jazz violin and also a top cornet player. A colorful character who overcame alcoholism, Wetmore was able to perform in any style.

As I worked on the book, I relied on my background as a news reporter and editor. Rather than simply collect or re-tell stories about the great jazz players and venues on Cape Cod I tried to take a journalistic approach, updating information wherever possible by interviewing the musicians, people who knew them, or family members of those who have passed on. The idea was to connect the various pieces of the Cape Cod jazz story into a coherent whole the way an improvising jazz musician weaves notes and rhythms into a new creation.