Jazz Legends Gather to Look Forward

When asked about his earliest Boston jazz memory, longtime jazz producer Fred Taylor replied, “Well, there were caves….” It’s a joke, but there is a shred of truth in it. Taylor is inextricably linked to Boston jazz history, with a career dating back to 1963 that has seen him manage the famed clubs Paul’s Mall, The Jazz Workshop, and the still-active Sculler’s Jazz Club. Taylor was one-third of a panel that met Thursday, November 1, at Harvard’s Barker Center. The other two panelists were local radio legends Eric Jackson, hailed as the “Dean of the Boston Jazz Scene,” and Steve Schwartz, creator and host of several WGBH jazz programs from 1985 to 2012. A noted jazz critic, Bob Blumenthal ’69, moderated the event while the three veteran promoters swapped stories of their colorful careers and discussed the future of jazz with cautious optimism.

Each of the panelists had his favorite stories of interacting with jazz greats. Jackson, whose father was New England’s first African-American radio announcer, had musicians in his house throughout his childhood. “My father was good friends with Duke Ellington,” he said. “My brothers were redoing the roof, and for some reason [Ellington’s drummer] Sam Woodyard decided to go up on the roof…a little tipsy. Someone literally grabbed him and said, ‘Man, get off this roof!’”

Other stories were touching rather than humorous, like Schwartz’s description of an interview he conducted with saxophonist Benny Carter. “I could tell immediately that he didn’t want to be there,” said Schwartz, “[but when] he realized I knew a bit of his history…he got warmer, and more friendly, and…when we were off the mic, he thanked me for such a good time.”

There was an air of sobriety to the panel when discussion turned toward jazz today. In June of 2012, Boston’s WGBH cut the majority of their jazz in favor of news broadcasting. Jackson still holds onto nine hours of weekend airtime, but the rest of the jazz programming, including Schwartz’s show, has been eliminated. Jackson is insistent that radio is essential for creating new jazz fans. “You are limiting yourself by just allowing yourself to listen to those songs that you have on your iPad,” he said. “Radio can be a whole world of discovery.” And he does not find the internet to be a suitable replacement for radio broadcasting because its use is often confined to a computer. “It just can’t really reach people everywhere,” he said in an interview with The Crimson.

But all three agree that the jazz world remains an exciting place. Schwartz said that Boston’s identity as a college town has helped cultivate a scene of exciting young players. He claimed that the changing ambitions of this generation of college students in Boston are inspiring. “These young kids are interested enough to pursue this music knowing that they’re not going to become millionaires or be on TV,” he said. This generational change could possibly keep the old genre from fading away.

Taylor agrees that the music itself is in good shape. “Jazz is alive, but in a different mode,” he said. “It’s not in the big major clubs so much, but there is a lot of little local activity.” Taylor references smaller venues in the greater Boston area such as the Chianti Lounge and the Acton Jazz Café. “The challenge,” he said, “is to get more of [the music] heard.”

Jackson agreed with Taylor. “If you’re playing [at a jazz club], that’s sort of like preaching to the converted,” he said. “Take the music outside, where people just walking by can hear.” Jackson said that with less radio, the jazz community must find new ways to “bring the music to the people.”

In fact, there is an entire coalition of people trying to do just that. During the panel, Taylor pointed out Pauline Bilsky, the director of JazzBoston, in the audience. JazzBoston is a jazz support network in the greater Boston area that, among other efforts, has brought jazz into Boston libraries and the Boston children’s museum. “We have programs for all ages,” said Bilsky. “For young kids, for an after-school program, for high school kids, and…a multi-generational program.” Yet Bilsky admitted that funding can be difficult to attain. “We struggle every time, every round, to get support,” she said.

The Harvard Jazz Bands showed their support for the music and the three local legends on Friday, November 2. Their concert, “Live From Lowell Lecture Hall: Harvard Honors Jazz Heroes,” featured pieces selected by each guest. Schwartz, who picked Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite,” finds watching musicians play live to be one of his favorite things about jazz. “To watch the interaction between band members is just unbelievable,” he said.

Taylor, who picked a pair of Count Basie numbers, “Flight of the Foo Birds” and “Splanky,” responds most to the rhythms. “When I hear great jazz, my body is moving. It’s in me. I’m grooving to it,” he said.

And Jackson, who requested Miles Davis’s “Milestones,” has the cleanest and simplest reason for his love of jazz: “I heard it; I thought it was beautiful.”