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    Al Vega, 90, Boston piano legend accompanied the giants of jazz

    Essdras m suarez/globe staff
    Al Vega celebrated his 90th birthday this summer with a performance in Everett.

    In clubs hazy with smoke and the promise of a great performance, Al Vega played piano as the finest jazz musicians stepped into the spotlight.

    Appearing in nearly every chapter of Boston’s jazz history, beginning in the 1930s, Mr. Vega shared the stage with a roster of musical royalty: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Stan Getz, and Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.

    They asked Mr. Vega to back them because he made their music better and was reliable.


    “Billie Holiday had her own piano player, and so did Charlie Parker,’’ he said in 2004, “but don’t forget, when you’re playing seven nights a week, sometimes a piano player might get high, and so I’d end up playing for people like Billie Holiday or Bud Freeman or Charlie Parker or Miles, who didn’t like white people, but I got along with him OK. And Nina Simone had a bad reputation, too, but I played opposite her and got along with her.’’

    matthew j. lee/globe staff
    The Al Vega Quintet had Jon and Jenn Gilburg of Holyoke kicking up their heels this year in Boston.

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    Mr. Vega, who possessed the kind of stamina that kept him performing and coaching youth baseball as a nonagenarian, died of kidney failure Friday in Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 90 and had lived in Everett since just after World War II.

    “In the history of Boston jazz, he’s got to be in the top level, not only because of his longevity, but because of his incredible musicianship and the incredible integrity he brought to all his endeavors,’’ said Leonard Brown, an associate professor of African-American studies and music at Northeastern University who published the book “Boston’s Jazz Legend: The Al Vega Story’’ this year. “He always brought his best to the gig, every time.’’

    Mr. Vega, who also played vibraphone, had regular gigs at Antonia’s in Revere and at Lucky’s Lounge in Boston, and his resume reached back to the legendary ballrooms and clubs of Boston’s heyday in the national jazz scene. He played swing and bebop at the Hi-Hat and performed in places such as the Roseland ballroom, Storyville, the Ken Club, and Paul’s Mall.

    Those performances continued after he turned 90 in June.


    Mr. Vega, who played in a trio with Dave Zox on bass and Rick Klane on drums, was the featured act at his 90th birthday party in June at Scullers Jazz Club.

    “I think he was probably one of the most beloved musicians of our time, both historically and from a musical standpoint,’’ said radio personality Ron Della Chiesa, who is helping to organize a January tribute to Mr. Vega at Scullers. “Al just kept going. He was like a jazz train - he was the ‘A train.’ ’’

    As much an institution in Everett as on stage, Mr. Vega finished his 49th season coaching Babe Ruth League baseball this summer, a tenure that began after he coached Little League when his son was young. Last month, the city named a street corner in his honor.

    Having loved playing baseball as a boy, Mr. Vega was a mentor to young players on the field. For years he also ran a talent showcase in different venues, encouraging younger musicians, such as the vocalist Rebecca Parris.

    “He did more for music in the Boston area than any other five people combined,’’ said Paul Schlosberg, who was Mr. Vega’s publicist and promoter for many years. “Al was constantly working. He loved his music, he loved being at that piano, and he loved bringing along new musicians.’’


    Born in Worcester, Mr. Vega’s parents were immigrants and his legal name was Aram Vagramian. He borrowed the stage name Vega from a sign company his father ran.

    His family moved to Chelsea when Mr. Vega was young. He graduated from Chelsea High School in 1939 and spent a year studying engineering at Northeastern University.

    A piano student since the age of 5, he started gigging with a jazz trio while in high school. Trained as a classical pianist, he studied at New England Conservatory after leaving Northeastern until he was drafted during World War II.

    The Army stationed him in Virginia, where Mr. Vega noticed Martha Matthews of North Carolina at a dance.

    “My mom was a great dancer,’’ said their daughter, Diane Austin of Sag Harbor, N.Y.

    The couple married in 1945 and lived briefly in Chelsea before settling in Everett.

    Mr. Vega refined his playing while performing with the best in the business, a daunting process.

    “I just put my head down and played,’’ he told the Boston Herald in 1990. “I was so scared I didn’t even want to look at them. But I guess I did OK.’’

    He did so well that a few years after the war, he recorded an album for Prestige, a national label. The release caught the attention of jazz critic Nat Hentoff, who encouraged him to tour.

    “But my wife was a Southern girl and didn’t know anybody in Boston,’’ Mr. Vega said in 2004. “She said if I go on the road, we’d have to sell the house and she’d move South. So I said to hell with it. I’d stay in Boston, and I got involved in Little League and then Babe Ruth baseball, and played piano at local clubs.’’

    Though he wondered what would have happened if he made the other choice, “there’s no guarantee I’d have been a big name,’’ he told the Globe, adding that he “could have ended up in an alley, drunk, or an addict. So staying in Boston might have saved me, and at the Hi-Hat and Storyville I played opposite the best jazz people in the world.’’

    Among the many musicians he encouraged was his daughter, now a music psychotherapist in New York, who sang with Mr. Vega when she was younger.

    “He’s a very sensitive and incredibly intuitive player,’’ she said.

    Mr. Vega also had a stage presence that drew the eyes of the audience and other musicians.

    “He had this very dynamic style, very animated,’’ Della Chiesa said. “He played with real, real intensity. There was no letup and he would drive the other musicians to stay with him. He could adapt to any musician who came in and there was always a smile on his face. He loved playing.’’

    Because Mr. Vega was among the few people alive who had played with so many historic jazz musicians, news that he died resonated far beyond Boston.

    “His death,’’ Hentoff said, “is a singular loss to the most important music we have contributed to the world.’’

    Mr. Vega played for three hours at his June birthday party. Asked how he managed to do it, his answer trailed off into the next chord progression, the next improvisation: “Once my adrenaline gets going . . .’’

    Linda Gaffney, who was Mr. Vega’s caregiver for many years, recalled that Friday, when he knew death was near, “he said, ‘I’ll see you soon. I’ll be up there to play you a concert.’ ’’

    Mr. Vega’s wife died in 2000. In addition to his daughter, he leaves a son, Alan of Methuen; a sister, Violet Vagramian of Florida; two granddaughters; and a great-granddaughter.

    A service will be announced.

    During a medical checkup when Mr. Vega was 83, “the nurse asked my secret,’’ he told the Globe, “and I said, ‘Hanging out in smoke-filled clubs for 60 years.’ ’’

    Bryan Marquard can be reached at