Fred Taylor is a living jazz encyclopedia. A jazz impresario for over half a century, he knows the temper of hundreds of musicians, and remembers every jazz venue in Boston as far back as the 1950s. As his jazz club Scullers celebrates its 25th anniversary, Taylor sat down with The Crimson to talk about his stories, visions, and lifetime love for jazz.
The Harvard Crimson: Starting from the 1960s, you have been running several jazz clubs, including...Scullers. How was the jazz scene in Boston when you first started, and what got you into the music business?
Fred Taylor: In the late ’40s and throughout the ’50s, there was a terrific jazz scene at the crossing between Mass Ave. and Columbus Ave. You could always find national acts at clubs like Hi-Hat and Pioneer. [At that time,] I bought a Revere tape recorder with a five-inch reel, and recorded performances…. I by chance recorded a fantastic session of Dave Brubeck. It was so great that his record company wanted to put this out [and made it] one of the first 10-inch LPs, titled “Jazz at Storyville.” It received great critical acclaim, and since then, Dave and other musicians invited me to record more songs, still with my amateur machine. [Later on,] I started a booking company, and when the Jazz Workshop opened in 1961, I got the chance to book it. The first artist to perform [there] was Stan Getz, and then followed John Coltrane. Since then, I have been an impresario.
THC: Throughout these years, you have cooperated with numerous musicians. [Do you have] any anecdotes about them?
FT: I had many interesting [experiences] with Miles Davis. I first met him in 1967; he was already famous and was known for his eccentricity. I asked him how he liked to run his sets, and he said, “I came here to play, man.” I told him we opened at nine and closed at two and he was in charge, and then [I] went away. So he played for the whole night and then asked me how I thought of the band. I told him that they could be better, and he said, “You know, you are right.” That little interaction set our relationship. Miles was a very direct guy; he didn’t like any flattery or puffery. Since then, I became the only guy he would play for in Boston. Another story: at some point of his life, Miles went through an accident and had a hip replaced. In 1987, I also had a surgery and got both hips replaced. So when Miles came to Boston, I told him I was finally “hipper” than him. He threw his arms around me and said, “You old motherfucker!”
THC: How has jazz changed [since] the ’70s?
FT: Jazz, in its very nature, is a developmental type of music. Berklee, for example, is pouring out hundreds of music students every year, so there’s an infusion of music over the world. Last week, there was a Turkish performer at Scullers called Mehmet Sanlikol. He’s experimenting with an infusion of Turkish music [into] jazz structure. Even among American musicians, there’s an experimentation with fusion of rock and rap; there’s some great jazz rap now. Jazz keeps evolving. It keeps its roots in New Orleans but is always absorbing new things.
THC: One of the current directions of jazz is “pop jazz,” represented by Michael Bublé and Norah Jones. Do you think this is the future of jazz?
FT: I think it’s another step of the evolution of jazz. When I heard the demo of Norah Jones’s first album, I thought she was really doing something special, so I brought her in before the album was released. Five or six years later, her agency put her into 5,000-seat auditoriums because there was a big demand. I told them not to push her too much because she had a very private, intimate personality. As it turned out, they made a lot of money quick and then she crashed. She’s been trying to find herself ever since.
THM: Many people would say the popularity of jazz has been declining in recent years. Do you think this has had a significant impact on jazz clubs?
FT: There’s some very funny things going on. On one hand, there are many more young jazz players than ever before, and yet there are fewer young jazz listeners. Also, jazz festivals draw a humongous crowd, but it doesn’t carry over to many local small groups. There’s a lot of jazz in the suburbs at small restaurants and hotels, but national jazz clubs are struggling. There’s a disconnect here, and I can’t quite figure it out. However, I don’t think jazz will ever die. It’s a living music, and it keeps evolving.
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