Legendary Boston Jazz Impresario Fred Taylor
At 89 Writing Memoir with Dick Vacca
By: Charles Giuliano - Jul 31, 2018
In the past couple of years there have been several books focused on the arts and media of Boston in the 1960s and 1970s. There are more in the works. Staying on top of this we have posted a number of reviews and interviews.
A result of this literary activity is a critical mass of research that has created ever greater interest in the unique cultural activity that has long been neglected. Much of this material is ephemeral and there is urgency in reporting and preserving this legacy.
Recently, we got an e mail and call from the legendary jazz impresario, Fred Taylor. I met him in the early 1970s when I covered jazz, blues and rock for the former daily Boston Herald Traveler. Over the years he has been a treasure trove of insights and humor. He was known to book comedians more out of passion than sound business strategy.
When Miles Davis formed new groups the tours often started with a week at the Jazz Workshop. Talent agents and record companies often used his Boylston Street venues, Jazz Workshop/ Paul’s Mall to launch new acts. One of those was Bruce Springsteen.
That was two years before the gig when Jon Landau “discovered” him in concert at the Harvard Square Theatre.
Taylor booked the Jazz Workshop/ Paul’s Mall from 1963 to 1978. From 1991 to 2017 he booked Scullers Jazz Club and produced the Tanglewood Jazz Festival from 2001 to 2007. Currently, he is booking a series of concerts for the Cabot Theatre in Beverly.
We talked about the memoir “What and Quit Show Biz” which is a collaboration with Dick Vacca. He wrote “The Boston Jazz Chronicles: 1945-1962.” The book with Taylor picks up that narrative in 1963 with the Jazz Workshop. They taped ten, three hours sessions. That’s 30 times more than what follows.
Charles Giuliano When did you start working at the Jazz Workshop?
Fred Taylor 1963.
CG Were you with George Wein prior to that?
FT No but my friend John Sdoucos and I were early investors in the Newport Jazz Festival. I knew George from his club Storyville. He grew up on Grant Avenue in Newton about five blocks from where I lived. We both went to Boston University. He was a musician (piano). I didn’t really know him but I knew who he was. That was the 1940s about half way between Newton Center and Newton Corner.
I got to know him when he ran Storyville in Kenmore Square. (I knew the club when it later moved to Copley Square. As a teenager my uncle James Flynn took me there to see the Duke Ellington band in the mid 1950s.)
CG How did you get into the music business?
FT Everything is by accident. Nothing goes by plan. If I need to go the bathroom I’ll plan that but everything else happens by chance. Originally, I got interested in big band music when I was at Newton High. The RKO Theatre in Boston was on the corner of Washington and Boylston Street. They would have a band and a movie. That circuit booked all the big bands. On Saturday I would see the 11:30 am stage show, see a movie, then catch the second show. That was Louis Jordan. - The original sextet was Jordan (saxes, vocals), Courtney Williams (trumpet), Lem Johnson (tenor sax), Clarence Johnson (piano), Charlie Drayton (bass) and Walter Martin (drums)- Lionel Hampton, and Jimmy Dorsey.
Around 1948 I bought my first 78 (rpm record) Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts.” I loved that. I loved the bop, the rhythm, and the humor of Dizzy.
CG Did you have any musical training?
FT I studied with a very famous woman, Madam Chaloff.
CG Of course, Segre Chaloff’s mother.
(Serge Chaloff -November 24, 1923 – July 16, 1957- was a baritone sax player and Boston’s most famous musician of that era. At first Chaloff played with Boyd Raeburn's short-lived big band. In 1947-1949 he was one of the "Four Brothers" reed section in Woody Herman's Second Herd. He also played with Georgie Auld, Jimmy Dorsey, and Count Basie, as well as recording as a leader. On baritone sax he was the bridge between Duke’s Harry Carney and Gerry Mulligan.)
When I was eleven I studied classical piano with her for two years. Later, I studied popular piano with a guy named Sid Reinherz. For a little while I took up the trumpet. Not for long as it was too much. You have to keep your lip up every day. Then I ended up playing the cocktail drum.
During BU one summer I worked at a resort as a bus boy. Another bus boy was Ed Simon. Of the two bellhops one was a trumpet player and the other played clarinet. On Wednesday, Friday and Saturday we did little shows for the hotel audience.
I was the MC. One night I said “Eddy while you’re playing the clarinet can I play drums?” He said “sure.” I started playing the cocktail drum with brushes. At the end of the season he said to me “Gee, I don’t want to lug that drum with me.” So I said “I’ll buy it from you.” Which I did for forty bucks. By the way I still have it.
Herby was in The Don Crayton Orchestra. He was at BU and leaving to study at Syracuse. He asked if I would like to take over the band. I fronted the band playing that drum. My pianist was Creighton Hoyt. He told me about an incredible piano player in his regiment. He was well known on the West Coast and if he ever came East I should catch him.
I saw a Storyville ad, opening Monday, Dave Brubeck. I said, damn, that’s the guy Creighton’s been talking about. That’s what led to taking my tape recorder to the gig. That was 1952 and I didn’t get into the music business until 1960 and it was again because of a tape recorder. A friend John said there’s a drummer in Lynn that plays like Basie. I recorded them for four nights. I asked John for some bread and he went into the famous “I ain’t got no money” shuffle. I said let’s make a deal and go in partners to promote this guy. That was my entry into show biz and I never looked back.
CG When you studied with Madam Chaloff did you meet Serge?
FT No. I had met him once or twice but he had left with a Boston/ New York band fronted by Tommy Reynolds. I only saw him once or twice but did get to meet him in later years. We actually went out together on a double date. He got knocked off of Woody’s band. He had a terrible heroin habit.
CG When I was a teenager in the 1950s I saw him once during the Boston Arts Festival on the Public Gardens.
FT Yes. Herb Pomeroy had a lot to do with that. That was a lovely setup.
CG I believe he was featured with Pomeroy. Did you ever meet the piano player Dick Twardzik (April 30, 1931 in Danvers, Massachusetts – October 21, 1955 in Paris)?
(He overdosed while on tour with Chet Baker. He studied with Madam Chaloff and made his professional debut at the age of 14. He played and recorded with Serge who was eight years his senior.)
FT I didn’t know him but saw him play. As a matter of fact, it was Twardzik who got Serge hooked on smack. Eventually, Serge shook it but started having surgeries and amputations (for cancer of the spine).
When he came off Woody’s band we spent time together. I remember him playing in a wheel chair during a Boston jazz festival. He was living with his mother in the Fenway. I actually booked a date of the Woody Herman All Stars for a Tufts Winter Carnival. I had Serge and Red Rodney (trumpet). But I wasn’t about to play drums in that group.
CG Tell me more about your book “What and Quit Show Biz.” You spent ten Saturdays, three hours each, with Dick Vacca (Author of “The Boston Jazz Chronicles: 1945-1962”). Thirty hours transcribed is a lot of material for a book.
FT One chapter he’s done is called “Over the Rainbow” and he’s put together the whole story of how I came to record Brubeck. He’s traced it back to the Strawberry Hills Hotel where I was working that summer. He writes about how I met Herbie, bought his drum, and how he led me to the Don Creighton Orchestra. From there, the link of how I knew about Dave Brubeck. He made a lovely story of how that all went down.
That 78 played a key role in Dave’s career. Columbia Records signed him because of the buzz about the record. There were two New York Times articles about it. I just did stuff and in my innocent naïve way didn’t know that I was ground breaking a lot of things. John Hammond wrote that while EP technology had been developed musicians were still recording three minute cuts. Except, he said, a live recording of Dave Brubeck which had a seven minute cut of “Over the Rainbow.”
CG What label did it come out on?
FT Fantasy Records from the West Coast with Dave White.
That Sunday when I recorded it Dave wanted to hear it played back. I told him my machine is just a tape deck. I have to plug it into my system at home. He said, “Gee, can we go there and hear it?” It was afternoon with time before the evening performance. So Paul Desmond and Dave jumped in my car and we drove to my folk’s home in Newton. He said “Wow, that’s great. Can you make a copy for me?”
I was in New York the next week so I went to a studio and had a copy made. I got a phone call and Dave said, “My record company heard it and they want to put it out.”
So, I made a deal. Are you ready for this? (emphasis) I sold that record for a hundred and fifty dollars! Hey, that paid for my tape recorder and microphone.
CG How many chapters have been done?
FT He’s been working on it. He’s supposed to have it done in about a month. It’s going to be around 400 pages. I told you my title “What and Give up Show Biz?”
Recently, I heard an interview with Willie Nelson. He was asked why he is still working at 87. He told the story with that punch line. It’s about a guy getting on in years who cleans up after the elephants. Since it’s such a shitty job he’s asked if he plans to retire? The answer is “What and give up show biz?”
CG Did you found the Jazz Workshop/ Paul’s Mall?
FT No. It started in a bar called The Stables on Huntington Avenue in Copley Square. There was a ramp that went down into a little basement room. The original Jazz Workshop was started there by (pianist) Ray Santisi, (band leader) Herb Pomeroy, and (tenor sax player) Varty Haroutunian.
Vacca’s blog states that “Stable owner Harold Buchalter found a new spot for his club, downstairs at 733 Boylston Street, and reopened in October 1963 with the name the musicians wanted: the Jazz Workshop. Haroutunian set aside his tenor to serve as full-time manager, a role he filled for about three years, leaving after Buchalter sold the club to Fred Taylor.”
The owner of The Stables relocated because his place was being razed to make room for the highway (Mass Pike extension). He asked if I would help to promote and book it so that’s how, in 1963, I got started.
CG In the 1950s when I was becoming a jazz fan I recall seeing a Storyville ad in the Herald for Billie Holiday? Did you ever see her?
FT Yes, I did. I saw her at Storyville and the following week (July 17, 1959) she died in New York. It was a Thursday night, with not very many people there. They had a beautiful little blue spot on her. She looked angelic and her voice was so beautiful. It was like a moment before death that they talk about sometimes. Little did I know?
CG So you only saw her once.
FT No, I saw her at the High Hat with Roy Haynes on drums and John Malachi was the pianist. I have a tape I recorded with a bit of her singing “Perdido.”
CG Where was the High Hat?
FT On the corner of Mass and Columbus. In the 1950s that corner was almost like 52nd Street in New York. There was the High Hat, Wally’s Paradise, The Savoy, The Big M, Eddy’s, and the after hours club, oh. (pause)
CG The Pioneer?
CG And Estelle’s?
FT Yeah, that’s the one I was trying to think about.
CG Then further into Roxbury I used to go to Connolly’s Stardust Room. (Closed in 1998) There was a house band with tenor player Al “Bottoms Up” Tyler. They would bring in a headliner. Young Tony Williams (pre Miles) was the drummer and tenor player Sam Rivers was a regular.
FT I was there many many times.
CG When did Jazz Workshop/ Paul’s Mall close?
FT April, 1978. Costs were escalating and we decided to find another venue with greater capacity. A year ahead we set a closing date because it would take that long to filter down with booking and things. We would find a place and reopen. We came close and thought we would make a deal with the Paramount Theatre which was just up the street. We had B.B. King in Paul’s Mall and the Modern Jazz Quartet in the Jazz Workshop. There were two gigantic acts during the week we closed.
CG You had an interesting relationship with Miles Davis.
FT I first booked him in 1967. It was Monday night and I came down from the office. We started at 9 pm in those days. Miles was sitting at the bar and I went up and said “Hi Miles, I’m Fred Taylor.” I could have said I was Nancy Reagan and it wouldn’t have made any difference. I said to him “How do you like to run your sets?” He said “I came here to play man.” So I said “We start at nine and close at two with two sets. You’re in charge.”
They started at nine and played their ass off. At the end of the night he came up to me and said “What did you think of the band?”
I said “They sound good but I’ll bet that they sound better by Wednesday.”
He said, “You know, you’re right.” That little meeting bonded us because he hated puff and condescending flattery. He threw it at me and I came right back at him. That established a relationship and, believe it or not, I was the only one in Boston he would play for. He said so in his book.
CG Right. I read that.
FT I had him do a concert at the Opera House during the Boston Globe Jazz Festival. That was 1967 and, at the time, I was suffering from arthritis and was having trouble walking. I needed to have surgery and knew he had gone through it so I asked him what it was like.
About six months later I had him coming in for a show. I went out to Logan to meet him. We were walking to the baggage area and I said “Miles, there’s something I have to tell you. It’s taken a lifetime to be able to say this.” Now he’s looking at me. I said “Miles, I’m now hipper than you. I had two hips done baby. Two.”
He threw his arms around me in his usual manner and said “You motherfucker.”
CG There were stories about gigs when he wouldn’t show up until mid week. He would be hanging out across the street at the Lenox. Like a lot of cats they walk through early in the week then blow it out for a full house on weekends.
FT No. We actually only missed one Monday. He might be a little bit late. No, he did his job. I have no complaints other than that one time he didn’t show up on a Monday.
CG How about with Mingus? He would come in with his drummer Danny Richmond. You hired some Berklee kids and it would be a week of rehearsals. By the weekend he had them in shape.
FT One time he had a tenor player, I think his name was Stan Jones, a white cat, and he was bombed. Mingus was halfway through a song and stopped “This quintet will now become a quartet. Out,” he said.
CG I saw Coltrane once at the Jazz Workshop. How many times did he play there?
FT You saw the only time. That was 1964 with McCoy Tyner (piano) and Elvin Jones (drums). It was the original group. You saw the show. That was the only week when he played Boston.
CG We avoided the cover charge by standing at the bar. I recall being shocked when the entire set was one song. At one point the band left and Jimmy Garrison (bass) soloed for twenty minutes. They eventually returned and took it out. It is as vivid to me as yesterday. Why only once?
FT I don’t know. It’s a very good question and I don’t know the answer.
CG When I joined the Herald Traveler my first review was Elvin Jones. We met and I asked if you would introduce me to Mr. Jones. You pointed to the dressing room. Elvin’s Asian wife was stripping off his soaked undershirt. He rung it out and a ton of water dripped to the floor.
I said “Wow you sweat a lot.” That was my brilliant debut as a jazz critic. Elvin was generous and I got some great quotes. After that everything I knew about jazz was from talking with musicians. They took me to school. During a lot of Workshop gigs I would meet them for dinner up the street at the Half Shell. Herbie Hancock downed two dozen oysters on my dime. It was a great story. While his band laughed Roland Kirk (who was blind) cussed out the motherfuckin’ white jazz critics who were ruining the music. I wrote it all down.
FT His wife called him The Elvin. She would say “I’ll ask The Elvin.”
CG Of the acts that passed through who were you tight with?
FT Larry Coryell (guitar) was a close friend. Ray Santisi (February 1, 1933 - October 28, 2014) was a friend through all the years. I had good relationships with all of the artists. As a matter of fact I got along great with Mingus. I even got along with Nina Simone.
CG That’s a surprise.
FT I had her once at Paul’s Mall. Twice I had her in concerts at Symphony Hall.
I was quite friendly with Harry Chapin.
CG I covered that gig when he had a hit with “Taxi.” And I covered Jim Croce speaking of another guy who died young.
FT Jim was originally the backup guitarist for Harry. Management realized they had another star.
CG I saw Lily Tomlin at Paul’s Mall and interviewed her.
FT That was one of her first nightclub dates. She had just come out with that album. (In 1972, Tomlin released This Is A Recording, her first comedy album on Polydor Records.)
Lily is a very good friend.
CG When you booked Chuck Berry at the Mall there was a small turnout and we danced. That was a night to remember.
FT There’s a guy I would never work with again. Two weeks before the gig we got a call. “That’s not enough money.” We replied “But we have a contract with William Morris Agency.” The response was “Well. That’s not enough money.” It’s what they asked for and we agreed to. But we had to add another thousand dollars. Then he comes in and pulls “I don’t go on until I have cash in my hand.”
CG He was known for that. Sdoucus has stories of gigs with him. Chuck would show up with a guitar. Do the gig with a pickup band then head to the bus station and be off to the next gig. It was all cash and carry until the IRS caught up with him.
FT John and I still work together. We are pretty much in touch. In the winter he’s in Florida and has a house on the Cape the rest of the year.
CG I knew John when Don Law was putting the squeeze on him. John was booking the series Concerts on the Common which is when we got close. We went by helicopter together to Holyoke for the first gig of the Jesus Christ Superstar tour. That was a Herald scoop for me.
FT Don Law hung out at our office. We booked some of the acts for him when he was the Social Committee chairman as a student at BU.
CG There are a number of books coming out about Boston in this era. There is definite interest. Do you have a publisher?
FT I had a publishing deal and was about to sign a contract when the editor called with bad news. They were closing down the publishing unit. That was University Press of New England so I was out in the cold again. I just found a literary agent to see if she comes up with a new publisher. The last resort is self publishing.
CG Is Vacca’s book self published?
FT Yes and he’s done quite well with it.
CG How did you talk for three hours ten weeks in a row?
FT Very easy. It just flows. I’m looking forward to it and doing book signings and meeting people. I enjoy doing promotion. We hope to get it out in the spring of 2019. We have a proposal that goes out to editors that has two sample chapters. One is on the Brubeck recording and another on Miles.
CG What are some of the other hot topics?
FT Bruce Springsteen. I was the first to present him in Boston.
CG Does that predate the Jon Landau Harvard Square gig?
FT Oh yeah by far. I was in NY at the William Morris Agency. There was an agent, Phil McKee, who said “This is a demo I just got from Columbia. They are interested in signing this guy. If they do would you be interested in booking him?” They played it and I said “Gee, this is great.”
A couple of weeks later he called and said they signed him. We had him open for David Bromberg. That was his first Boston appearance. I later found out that he hadn’t yet signed a contract with William Morris. When he was actually playing at Paul’s Mall they got Bruce to sign the contract.
CG Do you remember the date?
FT Not off the top of my head but I have it written down. I have a log book that we kept for the Mall and Workshop. For every week we have the artists, attendance, what we paid them, and liquor sales. When pinning down things for the book it’s been invaluable.
(Columbia signed Springsteen in 1972. The Landau/ Harvard Square gig was 1974.)
CG When is your next birthday?
FT Do I have to have one? It was recent, June 8. I was 89 but there’s something wrong. I think it’s the wrong number. I think I’m going to edit my birth certificate to 1949. It’s much better sounding.
CG That makes you younger than me.
FT I’m OK with that.
CG When did you graduate from BU and what was your major?
FT Economics in 1951. If you’re in town give me a ring.
I’m putting shows into the Cabot Theatre in Beverly a lovely venue. It’s been renovated and has 860 seats. I have Jean Luc Ponty (jazz violin) who’s making his final tour. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, then Jake Shimabukuro, an incredible Hawaiian ukulele player, Catherine Russell and John Pizzarelli, Pat Metheney. Those are my dates through December. They have a guy who does classic rock bookings and I put in these special shows. I do ten to fifteen and they call it Fred Taylor’s Jazz Series. In Worcester at Hanover Theatre I have Tower of Power. That’s my own promotion.
CG Why are you doing this? I assume you don’t need the money.
FT Yes and no. I’m subsidizing to keep my assistant and office. I need to find where I can put all the stuff. The office is in Allston. It’s the building across the street from The Allston Depot.
CG What will become of the archive?
FT That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I have to contact Northeastern. I heard they’ve done some jazz archiving. BU doesn’t want it. David Bieber has something in Norwood I have to check out. Bieber has a 10,000 sq. ft. warehouse. He’s one of the biggest rat pack collectors in the world. He developed a New England Music Museum space in there. It also has a performance area. I have to see what makes sense.
CG There is so much ephemera that is at risk of being lost. That’s why people are working on books. There is an urgency to preserve culture for future generations. The NEA and Smithsonian should be investing in this heritage. I am shocked that BU isn’t interested. George Wein, you, and Don Law are major music entrepreneurs and alumni. Why on earth not celebrate that alumni legacy? Add to that, I’m a graduate of BU’s art history program and have a diverse Boston based archive.
It’s a real problem which must be addressed.
FT People are looking back and saying “Those were incredible years.”