The Boston area lost a preeminent figure last week when long time champion of the arts, Fred Taylor, passed away at the venerable age of 90. Taylor was a living bridge between the post-war Big Band Era and the improvised music of today, with stops along the way to cultivate the careers of emerging artists while presenting an eclectic mix of musical genres. A perpetual friend to musicians, Taylor’s adherence to ethical business practices and exquisite musical tastes could always be counted on.
Fred Taylor was born on June 8, 1929 in Newton, Massachusetts. At the age of eleven he began a two year course of classical piano study with Madame Margaret Chaloff, mother of renowned Boston baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff.
As a Newton High School student, Taylor explored Smilin’ Jack’s Records on Massachusetts Avenue and witnessed live performances by Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Dorsey, and Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five at the RKO Boston Theater. Brief tenures as a trumpeter and a percussionist found Taylor with an ever expanding network of musical associates but few opportunities to make a living playing music.
An economics major at Boston University, he graduated in 1951 and gained some early insight into the world of jazz clubs and promotions through a nascent, but budding, association with fellow BU student and pianist, George Wein. Wein ran Storyville, the fabled performance space that initially opened up in the Buckminster Hotel and eventually moved to Copley Square, and later would go on to become the founder of The Newport Jazz Festival.
An early taste of unexpected success came in 1952 when piano player Creighton Hoyt urged Taylor to check out Dave Brubeck, a pianist who was then well known on the West Coast, but had yet to be discovered by many in the East.
Hoyt was an army buddy of Brubeck’s, and the strength of his name proved enough to elicit approval for Taylor to record one of the emergent California pianist’s Sunday matinee performances when Brubeck came to Boston. The resulting amateur tape was purchased by Fantasy Records. Released soon afterwards as a 10-inch LP, the recording provided Dave Brubeck with the requisite exposure to secure a contract with the prestigious Columbia label, and resulted in a decades long association with Taylor.
A major opportunity arose for Fred Taylor in the early 1960’s when The Stables, a jazz bar in Copley Square, was pushed out due to the extension of the Mass Turnpike and its owner, Herb Buchalter, set up shop in a basement on Boylston Street. The new space opened in October, 1963, and was called The Jazz Workshop. Taylor was asked to assist in promoting and booking the room and teamed up with partner, Tony Mauriello (former owner of the Starlight Lounge, a nightclub on Harvard Avenue in Allston), to take ownership of it in 1965-1966.
That period saw the opening of Paul’s Mall, a subterranean room dedicated to the presentation of comedy and a mixture of musical genres – mostly blues acts - right next door to The Jazz Workshop. The Taylor/Mauriello duo owned and operated this space (and the Cinema 733 Theater, situated on the level above the clubs, as well), cultivating and solidifying their relationships with the music and cultural communities in and around Boston as the venues under their auspices gained solid reputations.
During this golden era, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Pat Metheny, and The Modern Jazz Quartet were but some of the luminaries who played at The Jazz Workshop. Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton, Junior Wells, John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Lou Rawls, and B.B. King all graced the stage at Paul’s Mall.
Economic constraints led to the shuttering of both clubs in 1978, but Taylor continued to stay close to Boston’s music scene. In 1981, his longstanding positive professional relationship with the sometimes mercurial Miles Davis compelled the trumpeter to seek his assistance in putting together a string of concerts that would serve as a return to the public eye after a five year hiatus. Taylor came up with a suitable venue by repurposing a nightspot called Kix, located near Kenmore Square, and within no time, all eight shows of the four night run were sold out.
Miles Davis was undoubtedly pleased by the impact of his successful Boston comeback engagement, less than coincidentally composing and performing a tune entitled “Kix” on “We Want Miles”, the live double album that he released in April, 1982 on Columbia records.
Fred Taylor continued to serve the jazz community as he booked talent for Scullers Jazz Club (1991-2017) and produced the Tanglewood Jazz Festival (2001-2007). He also booked a series of musical events during this period, curating a concert series for the Cabot Theatre.
When the idea of creating a scholarship at Berklee College of Music in Taylor’s name arose, many artists were quick to lend their support. The respect, nurturing, and good will that had been his hallmark for decades was reflected back at him by those he had helped along the way.
Monty Alexander, Grace Kelly, Danilo Perez, Terri Lynne Carrington, and Kurt Elling were but some of those who performed at an all-star benefit concert in September 2017, the proceeds of which were used to start the Fred Taylor Scholarship Fund.
Vocalist Catherine Russell appeared that evening as well, and later expounded upon the impact that Fred Taylor had on the arc of her personal and professional live: “He took a chance on me early in my solo career. He looked for any opportunity to present me whenever he could. He was a dear, sweet and very funny man, and an exceptional mentor. I will always miss him!”
WGBH’s Eric Jackson commented on the many people who expressed sorrow for the loss of his dear friend to which Eric has replied, “Losing Fred is a cultural loss for the city of Boston and the national jazz community”.
Ricardo Burke is a Brooklyn, NY based writer and lover of jazz, cinema and art.