Black History Month: A Spotlight on the Pioneer Club

February 13, 2013 |
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Duke Ellington

The following blog post was written by Stephanie Schorow, author of Drinking Boston: A History of the City and Its Spiritsin celebration of Black History Month. 

Many jazz clubs, which catered to Boston’s African-American community, flourished in Boston in the 1940s to the 1960s. Perhaps one of the most popular was the Pioneer Club. That is, popular to those who knew the secrets for getting into this afterhours bar and restaurant. Located near the Roxbury/South End line on an alleyway near Tremont and Northampton Streets, the Richard Earle Pioneer Club dated back to 1903, managing to survive as a speakeasy during Prohibition.

Richard Earle was a black train porter and established a place where porters, waiters and chefs could gather between runs. It became a hangout for both blacks and whites, with live music and, more importantly, impromptu concerts for famous musicians who would drop in at 2 a.m. after their gigs to jam with friends until dawn.  Musicians like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, even Billie Holliday, would drop by.

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Billie Holiday

But you had to know someone to get in. Lincoln Pope Jr., a former state representative from Roxbury, political leader and legislative assistant to the commonwealth’s sergeant-at-arms, became associated with the club and a word from him could get you through the door.

Veteran Boston Globe reporter Bill Buchanan described the procedure: “You rang the bell and waited for the doorman to move back a sliding wooden cover to the glass peephole. It was dark as a pocket in the doorway, but in most cases, you were recognized.”

Everyone hung out there—politicians, lawyers, reporters, musicians, music lovers, even gangsters. Buchanan described bumping into the notorious hitman Joe Barboza there (the two exchanged pleasantries) as well as gleefully drinking $1.25 beer at 3 a.m. More significantly, although most of the clientele was black, different races mingled there freely—as they did at other jazz clubs—even when so many other Boston institutions and neighborhoods were segregated. Afterhours bars were nothing new in Boston but, as Buchanan put it, “no one ever seemed ashamed to be seen at 3 or 4 a.m. at the Pioneer.”

Unfortunately, progress, under the guise of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, doomed the Pioneer Club. Its hours were curtailed, and in July of 1974, the building was demolished for new development. Bill Buchanan was among its mourners, writing that “a very special part of Boston night life that now has passed.” Lincoln Pope died in 1979, much lauded as an activist who encouraged many blacks to register to vote under the slogan, “A Voteless People are Hopeless People.” And of all the jazz clubs that once flourished in Boston, only Wally’s Café still remains.

Yet the Pioneer Club was a significant part of Boston’s drinking history, remembered with great affection by those who went there. Richard Vacca, in his comprehensive book, The Boston Jazz Chronicles, quotes a jazz fan as saying, “I only went there once, and I felt I had finally reached this ultimate place in Boston, the place where everybody’s hip.”

DrinkingBoston_Small ThumbFor more on the Pioneer Club, pick up a copy of Drinking Boston. The book introduces readers to the cast of characters who championed or vilified drinking and the places where they imbibed—legally and otherwise. Bringing us to present day, this literary pub crawl visits some of Boston’s most beloved and enduring neighborhood barrooms, ending with an examination of Boston’s very own recipe for the current cocktail renaissance sweeping the nation—the innovators, the hotspots, and the uncompromising dedication to craft. The book is available through our website; online through Amazon or Barnes & Noble; or pick up a copy at your favorite local bookstore. If your favorite shop doesn’t have it in stock, just ask—they’ll be happy to order it for you!

To help you explore the Hub’s best bars (both historic and contemporary) download the book’s accompanying free smartphone app. Cheers!

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