Fifty years ago, Fred Taylor booked the great Duke Ellington to play Paul’s Mall, the “underground penthouse” he ran on Boylston Street. To promote the show, Taylor got Ellington invited onto WBZ-TV’s morning show.
On the air, Ellington answered a few questions about his illustrious catalog. Then he switched gears. “It’s fine to look back,” he said, as recounted in Taylor’s new posthumous memoir, “but it’s more exciting to think about the future.”
“That Ellington interview rang a bell for me,” Taylor wrote in his manuscript, not long before his death a year ago at age 90. “It’s what’s next that’s important.” Though the show promoter had close working relationships with many of the jazz world’s biggest names, from Dave Brubeck to Miles Davis, his tireless devotion to the unheralded artists who might be “next” will remain Fred Taylor’s greatest legacy.
The publication of Taylor’s book, “What, and Give Up Showbiz?,” written with Boston jazz historian Richard Vacca, is the nominal reason for an upcoming all-star tribute to the late impresario. Diana Krall, Esperanza Spalding, Danilo Pérez, Grace Kelly, and many more are set to honor Taylor in a free virtual event on Monday, the day of the book’s release.
But it’s Taylor’s commitment to the future of the music he loved that will be the night’s true focus. The event is a showcase of the Fred Taylor Endowed Scholarship Fund at Berklee College of Music, which offers financial support to undergrads studying the business of music. The scholarship, established in 2017, was the brainchild of Grace Kelly, the young Berklee-trained jazz star whose career took off with Taylor’s help, and the veteran Boston trumpeter and bandleader Bo Winiker.
“Fred was so pivotal in the early careers of so many people,” says Roger Brown, Berklee’s president since 2004. “I think of Pat Metheny, and obviously Grace. Jason Palmer, Terri Lyne Carrington. A lot of Boston-area people are so monstrous in the jazz world now, and a lot of them got their start with Fred’s support.”
The title of Taylor’s book comes from an old joke about a guy who works at the circus. He complains constantly about his job, which is to clean up the elephant poop.
“If you don’t like it, why don’t you just quit?” a colleague finally asks. And the guy replies, “What, and give up showbiz?”
Brown, who will step down as Berklee president after the spring semester, says he was aware of Taylor’s significance to the local music community before arriving in Boston.
“All the stories of him going out and buying food [for the artists], putting up the signs, handing out the fliers. He was just a servant to the music, and I mean that in the best possible sense. He did whatever it took.”
In addition to his long runs booking Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop, which he co-owned, in the 1960s and ’70s and Scullers Jazz Club through the 1990s and beyond, Taylor promoted one-off shows at practically every venue in the region. In 1966 he helped bring the Rolling Stones to the Manning Bowl in Lynn. He brought Steve Martin to the Hynes Auditorium at the height of the comedian’s fame in 1978, and he was the first to present Miles Davis onstage, at a short-lived Kenmore Square dance club called Kix, after the irascible genius returned from a half-decade sabbatical in 1981.
“It was a tremendous compliment to Fred Taylor” that when Davis was ready to come out of his self-imposed exile, he chose Boston, says George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival.
For years, Wein trusted Taylor to let him know which new artists were ready for their close-ups at his prestigious festival in Newport.
“Without my asking he was finding talent when I wasn’t,” says Wein, who turned 95 in October. “I took Freddie’s word. He knew what was happening.”
The vocalist Catherine Russell was booked to perform at Newport last summer, before the pandemic shut down the concert industry. After years as a sought-after backup singer for pop and rock stars, she launched a solo career in 2006. She credits Taylor’s early encouragement with giving her the confidence to make a go of it.
“Without Fred I wouldn’t have been working at all in New England,” says Russell, who will take part in the tribute. Beginning at Scullers, Taylor brought Russell to his jazz series at Tanglewood, to the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, and to the Cabot in Beverly in a tribute to Billie Holiday.
A native New Yorker whose father, Luis, was Louis Armstrong’s longtime musical director, Russell says she and Taylor connected over their mutual love for “the old songs.”
“I was mixing jazz and blues in a way I’m not sure a lot of people were doing,” she says. “We bonded over artists like Nellie Lutcher. Whatever I was doing seemed to put a smile on his face.”
That was Fred Taylor — always smiling, wherever the music took him.
“When he starts to talk about music, he literally brightens up,” Grace Kelly told the Globe before the inaugural Fred Taylor Scholarship Fund benefit concert in 2017. “It’s beautiful.”
“I was married to the business,” Taylor writes in his memoir. “I was just consumed, working day and night.”
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
FRED TAYLOR SCHOLARSHIP FUND ALL-STAR TRIBUTE
Scheduled to appear: Diana Krall, Esperanza Spalding, Kurt Elling, Danilo Pérez, Terri Lyne Carrington, Catherine Russell, Kat Edmonson, John Patitucci, Jason Palmer, James Montgomery, Bo Winiker, Pat Metheny, Harry Connick Jr., and George Wein. Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. on Grace Kelly’s YouTube channel (https://youtu.be/Z-24pEwcHjs) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/GraceKellymusic). Free