For many Boston jazz fans, the question of whether the Regattabar would ever present music again seemed open and shut. Like every other music venue in the area, it was closed by the pandemic in March 2020. But as, one by one, entertainment venues started booking shows, it remained shuttered. A full year after crosstown rival Scullers Jazz Club had reopened, and jazz artists were showing up at City Winery and the Crystal Ballroom, the Regattabar remained dark.
“Like most businesses that closed during the pandemic, there were phases where we thought: Maybe it’s time,” says Alex Attia. As general manager of the Charles Hotel and Charles Square complex in Harvard Square, Attia was responsible not only for the Regattabar, but also the hotel and three restaurants — loosely categorized in business parlance under the moniker “hospitality industry,” one of the hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic.
“For four months we had zero [guests],” Attia says of the hotel.
In May 2021, the pandemic seemed to be abating. “And, of course, then another [COVID] variant hit,” Attia says. He was also watching the level of business and activities around Harvard Square. “Boston recovered much faster than Cambridge, and we were waiting for Cambridge to catch up.”
Now the Regattabar has caught up, with saxophonist Walter Smith III and his band playing Friday in the first show of what promises to be a robust season. Other acts on the schedule (extending into next spring) include rising star saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, former Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson and his trio, the Bill Charlap Trio, singer Sara Serpa with guitarist André Matos, and singer Gretchen Parlato with guitarist Lionel Loueke.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the club’s return. For decades, as other venues came and went, the Regattabar (opened in 1985) and Scullers (1989), were the twin poles of the Boston-Cambridge jazz scene — well-appointed lounges in luxury hotels (Scullers is in Boston’s DoubleTree Suites), booking a mix of internationally touring musicians and Boston-area artists. With the closure of the funkier-but-essential Ryles in Inman Square, in June 2018 (after a 40-year run), the scene was looking bleak indeed.
But for Attia, who has been at the Charles for 20 years, the reopening of the Regattabar was never a question. The club, he says, is “a focus, not just a side business. … It’s part of the Charles concept.”
When the time came to think about reopening, the hotel and its previous booking agent, the Blue Note Entertainment Group (which had followed the exit, in 2005, of Fenton Hollander, who had booked the club from its opening), could not come to an agreement about a strategy. The search for a new talent booker included the hiring and departure of one club manager who, after all the delays, eventually found work elsewhere.
The search ended with the hiring of Jeremy Cohen as the hotel’s entertainment manager. Cohen, 45, is not an obvious choice. A percussionist and composer with degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and New England Conservatory and a strong background in music education, he had no experience working in clubs or, aside from a brief post-grad stint, in bars or restaurants. But he had run his own business, ThisWorldMusic, a study-abroad program, for 10 years. And in 2021, Cohen, along with seven other local composers, created the New England Jazz Collaborative, as a response to pandemic venue closures. Through that group he was also a member of the Harvard Square Business Association, with whom the jazz collective collaborated on events, which in turn introduced him to the hotel’s management.
Attia met with Cohen a couple of times and was impressed. As for what the Regattabar’s schedule will look like going forward, Cohen has come up with an intriguing mix of the tried-and-true (Charlap, Iverson, and next spring, Danilo Pérez), rising stars (Wilkins, Serpa/Matos), and untested experiments (the pianist Bevan Manson’s octet with veteran singer Tierney Sutton).
What’s more, Cohen is drawing from the local scene in collaboration with the advocacy group JazzBoston, presenting its musician-curated Jazz All Ways series through December, including a program by the Berklee Global Jazz Institute. “Alex, and everyone at the hotel, they were clear that they really wanted to continue to focus on local acts,” says Cohen, “and making the club a meeting point and an incubator for the local scene.”
Meanwhile, Scullers, with savvy jazz fan and former Scullers box office manager Marla Kleman (who succeeded Jan Mullen as the club’s artistic director in 2022), has posted a strong season, opening last weekend with star saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and continuing with a mix of local and international acts, including two nights each with Kenny Barron, a NEA jazz master, and charismatic pianist and singer Eliane Elias, saxophonists Noah Preminger and Billy Harper, pianists Cyrus Chestnut, Yoko Miwa, and Laszlo Gardony, and “smooth” jazz saxophonist André Ward.
The reopening of the Regattabar gives the jazz scene another needed shot of adrenaline. Cohen says there’s an importance not only to letting the old audience know that the club is back but also expanding that audience, especially to the area’s vast student population. “One of my top priorities in booking acts is bringing in artists who are going to appeal to students so that, not [just] that they’re reminded about the Regattabar, but in many cases that they find out about us for the first time.”
Jon Garelick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.