Q+A with Fred Taylor
Fred Taylor has accumulated a lot of stories over his many years overseeing Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop on Boylston Street between 1965 and 1978, and then doing the same at Scullers in the Doubletree Hotel for 27 years, until this past January. For those who don’t already know the older stories, let me scroll through a couple of previous conversations and pass along a handful of them before getting to the interview below. Through the years, Taylor has booked some of the greatest names in jazz at his clubs: Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and many, many more. Keith Jarrett had a short run as house pianist, backing singers when he was a student at Berklee. Taylor booked top non-jazz talent at Paul’s Mall as well, folks like Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett, Bette Midler, and Aerosmith as they were on their way up. The night of the great Northeast blackout of 1965, Billy Joel went on with the show and played by candlelight. Taylor jokes that on another memorable night, he was nearly bowled over by the ganja smoke when he opened the dressing room door to check in on Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Taylor had a special relationship with Dave Brubeck, which dated back to having used a cheap early audio recorder to document a set that Brubeck and Paul Desmond played at George Wein’s old Storyville club in Kenmore Square. That recording became the 10-inch LP At Storyville 1954 for Fantasy Records. A couple of years later, after Wein moved Storyville to Copley Square and Brubeck had moved on to Columbia Records, Brubeck asked Taylor to record some more live stuff. “Which I did,” says Taylor, “with my same little one microphone and little tape deck. And he said, ’Give me your tapes and I’ll give them to Columbia. I won’t tell them where they came from, because if they knew they came from an amateur recorder they’ll just throw them out.’ So I did, and lo and behold, on the second album two cuts came from those tapes.” Six decades later, Taylor was with Brubeck offstage before a show at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center and asked if Brubeck ever still played “Over the Rainbow,” which had been the final track on the Fantasy LP. Brubeck said yes and nothing more, then came onstage, pointed out Taylor in the audience, and told the story of how he had first recorded it. “Then,” says Taylor, “he and [saxophonist] Bobby Militello did a gorgeous version of ‘Over the Rainbow.’ It was incredible.” A similarly touching story involves the same album and Paul Desmond, Brubeck’s original saxophonist. It occurred at a music festival in Vermont that Taylor was involved with in the late 1970s, not long after Desmond’s death. “Dave came up to me and said, ‘I was with Paul just before he died,’ and he told me that one of [Desmond’s] favorite pieces of everything he ever recorded was the “Don’t Worry About Me” on the original Fantasy album. And I just was amazed. I also almost choked up when he told me.”
And then there is Taylor’s relationship with Miles Davis. Davis came to respect Taylor so much that when he returned to performing in 1981, after an extended hiatus, he had Taylor book his the first comeback shows at Boston’s Kix Club. Taylor had earned that respect the first time he booked Davis, when he brought the trumpeter’s second great quartet to the Jazz Workshop in 1967. Davis had a reputation for irascibility, but Taylor was ready for him. “I was gonna be on my guard,” Taylor recalls. “So when I came down, 9 o’clock he’s sitting at the bar, and I go up and say, ‘Hi, Miles. I’m Fred Taylor.’ And that didn’t resonate, so I said, ‘How do you like your sets?’ That’s when he turned to me and said, ‘I came here to play, man.’ I looked at him and I said, ‘We start and 9, we close at 2 — you’re in charge,’ and I walked away. It was the best thing I could have ever said. He was on that stage, he had that band, and he played his ass off. “At the end of the night he came up to me and says, ‘What did you think of the band?’ I said, ‘They sound good, but I bet you you’ll sound even better by Wednesday.’ And he says, ‘You know, you’re right.’ Miles hated any flattery. It’s like, right to the point, and I delivered it to him. And that’s why he liked me right off the bat: because he knew that I wasn’t going to bullshit him.”
That’s a fitting story for the club-management program that the Fred Taylor Scholarship will help fund. There will no doubt be other such stories in the memoir Taylor is writing. But when we spoke recently he was focused on the present.
Bill Beuttler: What can you tell me about the scholarship itself? Can you tell me some details regarding how it came about?
Fred Taylor: The idea for the scholarship actually came from a discussion Bo Winiker had with Irene (Chang) and Bob (Kelly). Grace [Kelly] thought it was a good idea, and she then went to Roger Brown at Berklee, and he said, “Oh, we’d love to do that.” So that was how the scholarship got initiated. Then Grace, with Bob and Irene, her parents, are working with Berklee to produce the special concert, on September 12, which is a fundraiser for the scholarship. The scholarship is a two-pronged mission. One is for performance, and the other is for the business of music. And I’m really intent on having some kid — they may be performers, too — but to learn how to run a club, the business of music. How to run a club with the economics of the club and the sensitivities of the artists. We need more people that are capable of running a good music club. So that’s sort of the two-pronged mission for the scholarship: performance and business.
BB: They’ve already got a “business of music” major there, right?
FT: They do, but it isn’t quite wide enough. I’m hoping to expand it so that it includes clubs and management. They’re all set up. I’m one of the guys that egged them to do the Café 939, so they have everything that you can use to educate.
BB: Does Berklee have any existing faculty that teaches something like that? Or would they look around to make new hires?
FT: They do, but one of the things that I may possibly help in, something we’re going to explore, is whether I might come in as an addition, to help with the business management that is set up. That is one of the problems. Who learns how to run a club? Why aren’t there more clubs? There’s nobody to run ’em. Obviously you have to find the money, but that can be done.
BB: These days the musicians themselves are being trained in schools as much or more than on bandstands. This new club management focus seems to parallel that, because your generation of people who ran jazz clubs must have just kind of learned the trade on your own.
FT: Yeah, I happen to come from the background of starting as an artist manager. So I grew up with a whole artist side of it and then entered into: So you’ve got to run a club. So I have both sides.
BB: Let’s talk about the concert itself. You’ve got Pat Metheny and a bunch of other people performing?
FT: Yeah, we’ve got a terrific lineup: Kurt Elling, Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, Catherine Russell, Kat Edmonson, Monty Alexander, Jason Palmer, Terri Lyne Carrington Grace Kelly, Bo Winiker, James Montgomery. Oh my god, it’s going to be incredible.
BB: I’m hearing these names and it strikes me that some of these people probably got early breaks at some of the clubs you’ve run, whether it was Jazz Workshop, Paul’s Mall or Scullers. Is that true?
FT: Actually, all of them are people that I started with. Pat was probably the earliest, because he followed me through the Jazz Workshop. So first it was the Gary Burton Band, then he was performing in his own group. That was in the ’70s. And then all the rest of the people at Scullers. I found and started them at Scullers and continued on, and we had very personal relationships — not just in the booking, but we’ve become friends. And these are all people that feel very strongly toward me and were willing to come and help out.
BB: That’s quite a coup to get all of them. Metheny doesn’t do a lot of this kind of thing.
FT: No, as a very personal favor I asked that.
BB: It seems like the newest artist whose career you helped launch would be Grace Kelly. And before her Esperanza Spalding.
FT: There’s a whole group that, because they’re committed elsewhere, they’re sending videos which will be shown. “Congratulations,” something like that. Esperanza is. Christian McBride is sending one, I think. There’ll be about four or five videos, and I think Harry Connick Jr. is going to be sending one. And Chris Botti and probably Steve Tyrell. Oh yeah, and I have a Jack DeJohnette one. I ran into him at the Newport Jazz Festival. He gave me a real video. He can’t be there that night. Remember [concert and record producer] Todd Barkan? Long history. He was down in Newport, so I’d do a video with him, too. So yeah, we’ll have some interesting videos.
BB: Are you anticipating everybody’s going to play together, as one set after another, or what?
FT: Jason Palmer is organizing how it’s going to work out. I think everybody probably will do their own thing, maybe like allotting like 10 minutes per person, and maybe a few of them will get together. I don’t know. I’m left out of it. They said, “You stay out.” I’m not supposed to work on this.
BB: Well, that’s a rarity.
FT: Bob and Irene and Grace are [managing the event]. And emceeing is Robin Young and Grace Kelly and Ron Della Chiesa. By the way, after the concert, there’s an after-concert party at B3, which is the restaurant that’s in that new building that Berklee put up across the street, on the corner. The first floor they leased this restaurant, B3. There’s going to be an after-party, and Yoko Miwa Trio will be playing along with all my singers: Maggie Scott, Cassandre McKinley, and all my local folks.
BB: You may not be working that night, but you haven’t stopped working. You’re still active with the Cabot Theatre in Beverly.
FT: I am continuing on. I don’t know what the word “retirement” means. The Cabot Theatre asked me to produce the Jazz and Heritage Series, so we’re working with the Cabot Theatre. We’re also doing a concert at the Hanover Theatre in Worcester, a very interesting one, with Bucky Pizzarelli and the Vaughn Monroe Orchestra. This is a real senior special.
BB: When’s that going to be?
FT: October 15th. And then, let me see, what else? I’ve talked with the City Winery people, and we’ll probably do some interacting there after the first of the year. I’m still working on my book. It’s a work in progress. I think there’s a possibility I have a publisher. If not, we will self-publish. Because I’m working with Richard Vacca, and he’s great. He’s wonderful. The title of the book is: What, And Give up Showbiz?
For more on Bill Beuttler go to billbeuttler.com