It’s hard to say where Fred Taylor’s long and storied career in the music business began. Maybe it was the shows at the old RKO Theatre on the corner of Washington and Essex streets, where he spent his Saturday afternoons as a kid watching movies alternate with live stage shows by the likes of the Woody Herman Orchestra, Lionel Hampton, and Louis Jordan and his Tympani 5. Or maybe it was “Salt Peanuts” — the first Dizzy Gillespie 78 he bought as a teenager. Or maybe his career really began in 1952, when he recorded Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond at George Wein’s Storyville in Kenmore Square. After all, that was his first record deal.
“I made a deal for $150 to give [Fantasy Records] the tapes! That was fabulous! It paid for my tape recorder! My God, what else would you want!”
Taylor — who will receive the Roy Haynes Award on May 4 for his many contributions to the Boston jazz scene from the nonprofit group JazzBoston — was reminiscing in the office of his HT Productions in Allston. Taylor is celebrating several other landmarks this week. Although he does not like to reveal his age, he acknowledges that it’s been 50 years since the opening of his legendary twin clubs, the Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall, on Boylston Street, and the 25th anniversary of Scullers Jazz Club at the DoubleTree Guest Suites Hotel, which he has been booking almost since the beginning. The musical tribute celebrating Taylor’s Haynes Award is one of the keynotes of this year’s Boston Jazz Week (April 25 through May 4; see story, Page 24).
The award was created to honor Boston jazz drum legend Roy Haynes in 2009 and was given again to WGBH jazz radio announcer Eric Jackson in 2011, for “exceptional contributions to jazz or the jazz community.”
Pauline Bilsky, executive director of JazzBoston, says, “Fred’s contributions are extraordinary. He’s played an important role in creating Boston’s jazz heritage, and he’s doing something similar now, discovering jazz talents, promoting them, and showcasing them.”
Taylor’s career includes longstanding relationship with late, great artists like Brubeck, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington, and, more recently, Danilo Pérez, Grace Kelly, and Esperanza Spalding, and of course Roy Haynes. And he has a history in Boston rock and pop as well, having managed Willie “Loco” Alexander’s band the Lost, and having introduced acts such as Billy Joel, Earth Wind and Fire, and Bruce Springsteen at Paul’s Mall.
Taylor says his career happened pretty much by accident. “I never planned anything, it just osmosed from one thing to another,” he says, with typical verbal inventiveness.
Born and raised in Newton, he got bitten by the jazz bug when he first heard that Dizzy Gillespie recording — the combination of virtuoso musicianship and humor in “Salt Peanuts” would set a standard for his interests not only in jazz but comedy. (His first booking at Paul’s Mall was Henny Youngman, and he went on to book Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor, and Jay Leno.) In the ’50s, Taylor, a BU graduate, worked for the Serta mattress company, and meanwhile haunted Boston’s many jazz clubs around “the Corner,” Mass. Ave. and Columbus — the Hi-Hat, the Savoy, Wally’s Paradise, the Pioneer Social Club.
It was during this period that he was also recording shows with a portable tape deck. That led to the 10-inch Brubeck LP, “Jazz at Storyville.” An even more fortuitous gig took place in 1960 at Jackie’s Game Bar in Lynn, where Taylor taped a Hammond B-3 organist named Joe Bucci. He ended up co-managing Bucci, which in turn led to a Bucci record on Capitol, “Wild About Basie!,” and a relationship with Boston club-owner Harold Buchalter, who brought Taylor to the Jazz Workshop.
From 1963 to 1978, Taylor ran the Workshop and the larger Paul’s Mall (which opened a year after the Workshop) as tandem basement clubs, with a long string of legendary jazz acts — Ellington, Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Charles Mingus, George Benson. At one time, Berklee student Keith Jarrett was the Mall’s house pianist, playing for visiting singers.
Perhaps the most noteworthy relationship Taylor forged in those years was with Miles Davis. Before his first gig at the club in 1967, the notoriously terse Davis was sitting at the bar when Taylor approached him. “I’m Fred Taylor.” No reaction. Taylor asked, “How do you like to run your sets?” Davis turned to him and said, “I came here to play music, man!” Taylor said, “Miles, we open at 9, we close at 2. You’re in charge.” And walked away.
“He and the band were on at 9 o’clock and they played their asses off,” recalls Taylor. At the end of the night Davis asked Taylor, “What did you think of the band?”
Taylor said, “They sound good, but I bet you’ll sound even better by Wednesday.” Davis replied, “You know, you’re right.”
From that moment on, Taylor was the only promoter in Boston who Davis would play for, regularly calling him whenever he had a new band to break in.
Taylor was brought into Scullers at the recommendation of the club’s then-publicist Sue Auclair. Since then, he’s offered the Boston debut performances of stars like Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum, and Michael Bublé, and he’s nurtured the careers of the likes of Danilo Pérez, Kat Edmonson, Esperanza Spalding, and Grace Kelly.
But it hasn’t gotten any easier. The old Jazz Workshop/Paul’s Mall operated seven days a week, with shows at 9 and 11 and a Sunday matinee. “Today,” says Taylor, “I can’t get people out for a 10 o’clock show.”
There are any number of reasons, says Taylor. “The cultures have changed so much since those days.” In his early years, he points out, the record industry and a Boston community of promoters helped get the word out. Now, Taylor says, the burden falls on the artists themselves to promote through their fan bases and social networking.
But he remains philosophical. And when I talked to him, he was excited by the previous weekend show from pianist/composer/singer Eliane Elias, who filled the house for two nights, including one of the club’s regular Friday WGBH live broadcasts. “The music exploded out of her, and the audiences were up on their feet. . . . I told her, Eliane, you’re a musical firecracker!”
And he recalls one of many old saws about the jazz business: “You know how you make money in jazz? You start with $5,000 and you end up with $3,000. . . . It’s not a business you go in for if your idea is to become rich. You just hope to survive doing something that you love.”