Thinking about jazz, certain cities come to mind instantly: New York City, New Orleans, and Chicago, maybe Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. Boston, too, deserves a spot on the list, having nurtured legendary artists, bustling clubs, thriving schools, and storied personalities.
Still, even admirers can have a hard time putting together all the pieces, which is where advocacy comes in. Nat Hentoff, the Roxbury-born éminence grise of American jazz critics, wrote in a 2011 Jazz Times column about jazz advocacy groups that “there’s always been a gaping hole: no such celebratory organization in Boston, where I was deeply involved in the jazz scene throughout the 1940s and early ’50s, until I moved to New York in 1953.”
The topic of his essay was Jazz Boston, five years old and already starting to make a difference. The organization was conceived by Boston Herald critic Bob Young, who established it in 2006 with Pauline Bilsky, a communications consultant and the longtime manager of the composer and instrumentalist Henry Threadgill.
Jazz Boston’s achievements have continued apace since Hentoff’s salute. This week — a week, incidentally, in which Threadgill was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music — Jazz Boston celebrates its 10th anniversary in tandem with Jazz Week ’16, a 10-day festival comprising more than 200 events, including free pop-up concerts scattered around town for International Jazz Day on April 30.
A recent interview with Bilsky, jazz impresario and board member Fred Taylor, and Emmett G. Price III, the pianist, composer, and minister recently appointed Jazz Boston’s CEO and chairman of the board, began with an explanation of the impulse that prompted Young to conceive Jazz Boston. (Young, no longer active on the Jazz Boston board, continues to serve as an adviser.)
“He looked around and saw a very big, very diverse jazz scene, but none of the parts ever came together,” Bilsky said, seated with Price and Taylor around a table at Scullers, the Doubletree Suites Hotel jazz club that Taylor books, slated to move this year to a larger space on the ground floor.
“It was the connecting that was the very first thought,” she continued, “to connect all the parts of the jazz scene and make it stronger.”
Nodding in assent, Price and Taylor mentioned other organizations that had blazed a trail for Jazz Boston, including the Boston Jazz Society and the Jazz Coalition.
“They were geographically dispersed, and the venues and the journalists and the media and the musicians, they never really got together,” Bilsky said. “[Young] felt that working together, the scene would be stronger. And it was also getting the word out about what was actually going on in Boston, because there was a tremendous amount going on and people didn’t know it.” A central calendar, she said, was the initial priority; 10 years later, a comprehensive schedule of local events remains one of the premier draws on the organization’s newly redesigned website.
Young’s role as a journalist, Price explained, gave him a uniquely broad overview of the city’s activities. “He knew the various pockets,” he explained, “and lamented the fact that these different pockets weren’t coming together.” More than just providing a utility, then, Jazz Boston’s website was meant to serve as, in Price’s words, “a catalyst for bringing these different factions, these different communities, these different aspects of jazz together.”
An early manifestation of that impulse came in August of 2009, when more than 100 members of the Boston jazz community, ranging in age from 4 to 88, joined for a video portrait shot in front of one of the city’s most storied jazz venues, Wally’s Cafe — a happy if unplanned echo of the famous image “A Great Day in Harlem.” A joyous splash of mutual regard that culminated in an onstage jam session, the gathering bolstered a communal zeal that continues to inform the organization’s mission. Constructive engagement has been a consistent aim; in 2012, for example, in response to programming cuts at WGBH-FM, Jazz Boston helped to develop JazzBird, a smartphone app that aggregates web-radio jazz broadcasts from around the world.
In subsequent years the organization continued to identify and support events and programs off the beaten path. A glance at the Jazz Week schedule includes not only high-profile events like a second-line parade at City Hall and a new 11-day festival at Cambridge restaurant Thelonious Monkfish, but also offerings like a music-oriented health fair and a concert at an American Legion post in Mattapan. While partnering increasingly with prominent local entities including Citi Performing Arts Center and the Museum of African American History, Jazz Boston continues to emphasize grassroots efforts like after-school programs for at-risk teens.
Seeing multiple diverse constituencies mingling during a recent anniversary event, Price said, offered evidence of the organization’s principal achievement: bringing together musicians, media, and fans spanning ages, ethnicities, and stylistic inclinations. “A number of individuals looked at the landscape of that place and said, ‘This is Boston.’ ”
Naturally, keeping pace with change provides a constant challenge, Taylor said, citing stylistic flux, ever-evolving media, and a live scene in which festivals have proliferated while clubs have dwindled. “But jazz is still spreading,” he declared. “And that’s part of what Jazz Boston’s mission is: to explain that there’s a lot of parts to jazz. The word ‘jazz’ is an umbrella.”
Jazz Week ’16
Locations, times, and prices vary. April 22-May 1. www.jazzboston.org