Boston: Has Anyone Seen Our Scene?

Julia Werntz
Julia Werntz
Photo by Michele Macrakis

During a conversation with a graduate music student in Cambridge a while ago, I asked him his impression of the Boston jazz scene. There was silence, and I noticed a confused expression on the student’s face. Genuinely puzzled, he responded, “What jazz scene?” As someone who has been observing local jazz musicians for many years, I was initially as perplexed by his question as he was by mine. Our city, in fact, has acquired a reputation in faraway places as a kind of “hotbed” of jazz talent, due no doubt to the large number of excellent recordings local musicians have released on important jazz labels. Just the other day I read a statement by jazz critic Stuart Broomer (Toronto Life, Musicworks, Signal to Noise) that Boston “seems like the most creative place in American jazz right now,” and I’ve heard and read similar things several times. Given a little thought, of course, the student’s question makes sense—and not because he is classically oriented and simply unacquainted with the numerous professional jazz musicians in the area. He would need to search carefully to learn about the sparse and scattered jazz performances that occur, due to the nearly complete lack of solid, viable jazz venues in the area. No matter how many brilliant musicians may be living, rehearsing, and recording here, without a physical location where audiences can regularly listen to their work, how can there be anything the public perceives of as a “scene”?

Of course, equally important to one’s sense of “jazz scene” is a city’s ability to host visiting jazz artists from other places. Twenty years ago, the Boston area was still a stopping point with a number of venue options for musicians on tour. Here is a sample of what my husband, jazz pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, and I collectively remember hearing in the mid-to-late 1980s: Abbey Lincoln, Lester Bowie, David Murray, and Don Cherry with Ed Blackwell at Charlie’s Tap in Central Square, Cambridge; Cecil Taylor, Randy Weston, Steve Lacy, and Sun Ra at the Nightstage on the opposite end of Central Square; Mal Waldron, and Geri Allen with Joseph Jarman and Reggie Workman at the Willow Jazz Club in Ball Square, Somerville; Archie Shepp, Jacki Byard, and Henry Threadgill with Andrew Cyrille and Fred Hopkins at the 1369 Jazz Club in Inman Square, Cambridge. (Notice that none of these places, oddly, were actually in Boston itself.) These same venues, of course, were also the places one regularly heard local talent—older and “emerging”—such as the Fringe, the Joe Maneri Quartet, Jimmy Giuffre, Ran Blake, Joe Morris, and too many others to mention.

It’s stunning to think about what we’ve lost. All of the above venues are gone today (at least one was a drug front, another was evicted…), and no other jazz clubs have opened to replace them. Today musicians and their audiences here struggle desperately to find places to meet. Here is what their options are (or aren’t), arranged by category:

  • Posh and/or cocktail-style venues that are inaccessible to many important musicians because…
    a) The music is intended as background for patron conversation.
    b) The music is intended for listening, but the message is clearly “We’re not looking for something ‘interesting,’ thank you.”
    c) You need to be famous enough to completely fill the house.

    Not exactly scene-promoting. Well-known examples would be Bob’s Southern Bistro on Columbus Avenue in Boston (a and b), Ryles in Inman Square, Cambridge (a and b), Scullers (a, b, and c) and the Regattabar (c)—the latter two are situated on either side of the Charles River outside of Harvard Square, and offer sporty, collegiate rowing motifs, a cold, touristy vibe, and $8 beers. The likes of Paul Bley, McCoy Tyner, and Randy Weston can be heard at the Regattabar, but on the other hand, phone calls from Matthew Shipp go unreturned, apparently.

  • Places that feature popular jazz jam sessions, such as the historic Wally’s Café on Mass. Ave. near Symphony Hall, where amateurs and students can blow on Sundays. Thank goodness for Wally’s, but beyond this it doesn’t contribute to the scene as a vital jazz club.
  • Alternative venues. I recently read a series of essays from 1989 on the subject of Boston jazz venues by Stu Vandermark, who writes about the Boston jazz scene for Cadence Magazine. He had already noticed then a shift to “places not identified as jazz clubs”—for example: salsa and reggae venues in Cambridge, the Cambridge Public Library, and the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline. The Middle East restaurant, a famous, multi-roomed pop and Arabic music place in Cambridge’s Central Square, occasionally had jazz artists in their “main space,” downstairs. I saw Don Byron there, as well as Sun Ra, and the Either/Orchestra. Of these places, only The Middle East still programs jazz on very rare occasions, in the piano-less “corner space.” One other, newer, pop music club, the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, occasionally features groove-based jam bands, but also has no piano.

    Of the remaining alternative venues, only two currently possess pianos, and these both require a rental fee from the musicians: the Lily Pad in Inman Square, Cambridge (which I have written about here previously), and Rutman’s Violin Shop, on Westland Avenue in Boston, diagonally across the street from Symphony Hall. Rutman’s is attractive, friendly, and well situated, and hosts other, “legit” chamber music recitals as well.

  • Concert series. The Boston Creative Music Alliance series is an important, but sparse, four-concerts-per-season affair run by Boston Phoenix and Jazziz critic Ed Hazell, and is held at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston. (This season featured Ernest Hawkins and the New Horizons Ensemble, Tim Berne and the Big Satan, Misha Mengelberg and the ICP Orchestra, and one local group—the Makanda Ken McIntyre Project with guest Oliver Lake.) Groups with no acoustic pianist appear on the new Friday Night Series at Brookline Tai Chi, an attractive, roomy space on Beacon Street in Brookline, thanks to the initiative of members of the Fully Celebrated Orchestra who work there. (FCO drummer Django Carraza told me they are searching for a piano.)

    Another excellent, musician-headed concert series is Modern Improvised Music (mim), originally run by bassist Nate McBride at a gallery called Artists-at-Large. AaL was situated on the main drag of Hyde Park—a far, far off, deserted corner of Boston, miles away from the last subway stop—and later moved around the corner to a church basement. Location, location, location… And yet mim’s reputation spread fast, and concerts were frequently full. Considering the difficulty of trekking out to Hyde Park, this success indicates the local audience’s appetite for interesting music. In addition to presenting locals, mim drew musicians from out of town, such as New York saxophonist Tony Malaby, Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark, and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann from Germany. When McBride finally gave up on Boston and moved to Chicago in 2004, pianist Steve Lantner took over the directorship. This spring, AaL was evicted from the church, and mim is currently on hiatus as it looks for a new home. Lantner plans to resume this valuable series somewhere in the fall of this year.

    There also is a series at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center called the Real Deal Jazz Club and Cafe. Tables and a bar are brought into the elegant concert hall, which is thus transformed into a “cabaret” setting. The Real Deal is run by Fenton Hollander, who formerly booked for the Regattabar. Ditto here for everything I described about that place, minus the rowing equipment on the walls.

    The local festivals scarcely warrant mentioning. The famous Boston Globe Jazz and Blues Festival, begun in 1966, has been inactive since 2003 and shows no signs of returning, and the Beantown Jazz Festival, founded by Bob’s Southern Bistro owner Darryl Settles, seems to feature at least as much R&B and gospel as jazz, so one wonders about its title.

  • I contacted musicians from three different cities, including Boston, to get their point of view. All three are well-known, risk-taking musicians who have gained devoted followings over the years, and they are almost guaranteed to bring out a good-sized audience here whenever they play. I asked them, most importantly, where they play when here, and why. I also asked them to compare the situation here with other U.S. cities.

    Saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase has been based in the Boston area for more than twenty years and leads several groups, including the Charlie Kohlhase Quintet, the Explorer’s Club, and the Saxophone Support Group (whose name demonstrates the sense of humor required to survive here). Kohlhase used to appear occasionally at the Regattabar, but he told me now that since the previous booking agent (Hollander) left, he no longer does. He was playing at Artists-at-Large until it closed this spring, and now only plays at Brookline Tai Chi. (About both places he wrote: “the people are decent and trying to keep a scene going.”) He eschews places like the Lily Pad that “charge the artist to play—kind of a disturbing trend.”

    Saxophonist and clarinetist Ken Vandermark of Chicago, leader and co-leader of numerous groups (e.g. the Vandermark Five and the Free Music Ensemble), also cites the former Artists-at-Large and Zeitgeist galleries as his stomping grounds when here. Now that one is closed and the other has morphed, we’ll see if Vandermark will opt for the Lily Pad, Rutman’s, or something else—or stop coming all together. Vandermark also balks at the rental fee arrangement, and he notices a decline in Boston “since the period in the early 1980s when challenging music was presented on a regular basis at the Willow, Charlie’s Tap, and the 1369 club.” By contrast, he says, Chicago is a place where “not counting the mainstream jazz clubs, there is a place to perform cutting-edge music every night of the week.” He partially blames Boston’s much higher real estate costs for its problem, and points out that while New York has similar problems, “the musicians in the New York area have somehow been able to coordinate with presenters to keep music happening, in Manhattan and Brooklyn.”

    New York-based pianist Matthew Shipp, who performs and records as a soloist and in numerous other formations, said that New York really isn’t much better than Boston in this regard—it was a “don’t get me started!” moment in the conversation. He pointed out that the scene shifts from city to city, often depending on the existence of even one competent individual promoting jazz performances at any given time in a given city. (In Boston that individual was, for some years, a young man named Billy Ruane.) Currently, Shipp said, he has found the climate more favorable in places like Nashville and Austin. As for Boston, while Shipp used to play occasionally at The Middle East, he almost never plays here now unless he is featured in one of the four seasonal Boston Creative Music Alliance concerts—i.e. once a year, if we’re lucky. Keep in mind the piano issue here, add to it the inhospitality of the Regattabar et al., and the unpopular rental situation at the remaining two Boston-area venues that have pianos, and it’s clear that Boston has practically closed its doors to Shipp and countless other pianists, and their fans.

    Vandermark ended his email to me with these thoughts: “The lack of performance opportunities in a city like Boston is crippling for the scene. More than any other kind of music, jazz needs a live environment for it to truly develop—it is a process art form. The fewer chances that there are to deal with the process, the fewer chances there are to find new ground on which to build.” Someday somebody here will decide he or she knows how to properly sell live, evolving jazz to its audience. Meanwhile, with schools like Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory, Boston will continue to draw large numbers of improvising musicians, and therefore there always will be a scene, whether or not it is seen or heard.

    ***

    Composer Julia Werntz lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, jazz pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, and their daughter Anna. Since the mid ’90s her music, mostly chamber pieces, has been almost exclusively microtonal. Her music has been performed around the Northeastern United States and Europe, and may be heard, together with works by composer John Mallia, on the CD All In Your Mind (Capstone Records). She currently teaches music theory as an adjunct faculty member at universities in the Boston area, and also is Director of the Boston Microtonal Society, together with her former teacher and BMS president, composer, and jazz saxophonist Joseph Maneri.