South End

The Disappearance of South End Jazz
By Drake Lucas

Bob the Chef’s, a contemporary jazz club on Columbus Avenue. Click the picture to hear sounds from the Sunday Jazz Brunch

Jazz along Massachusetts Avenue was slowly silenced as the clubs shut their doors one by one, although the exact date of the decline of jazz in the South End is hard to determine.

The Hi-Hat closed because of fire in 1959; Wally’s Paradise moved to its smaller location across the street in 1968 because of Urban Renewal; The Pioneer shut down in 1974.

Charles Walker, a saxophonist who witnessed the rise and fall of the South End jazz scene, said that by 1970, jazz was starting to fade away from the neighborhood. That year, Local 535, the black musicians union that mainly represented jazz musicians, was forced to integrate with the white musicians union, Local 9. With the merger, the jazz musicians’ power decreased.

“They’re pretty much a dinosaur now, the old jazz clubs, and that’s where the really great jazz and mentoring took place,” said Brent Banulis, president of the New England Jazz Alliance, an organization that is working to preserve the history of local jazz.

Now, the intimate clubs where musicians are free to create for an appreciative audience are mostly happening outside the city. To pay musicians accordingly in a real jazz club is almost impossible in Boston because of the cost.

Darryl Settles, owner of Bob the Chef’s Restaurant and Jazz Café on Columbus Avenue, said that jazz clubs used to make their money from liquor, but no one can afford that today. Many places that have jazz now are restaurants, not just a bar.

“Traditionally, in the old school days with old jazz, people came in, had one drink, and they would just sit there listening to music all day,” said Settles. “If you came into my place and had one drink and sat for three hours that would not be a good thing.”

His club is also a restaurant, catering to what he calls a more “sophisticated” crowd. This is the direction jazz venues have to go, he said, to make enough money to stay open.

“It’s not going to be the old, dark clubs; it’s going to be more of a yuppie buppie kind of environment with live entertainment,” he said. “Jazz is going to be background music; it is not going to be in the forefront.”

This trend has many jazz enthusiasts worried.

“Jazz is an art form and should be treated as such,” said Banulis, adding that it is not meant to be background music with only a couple of tables listening. More and more people who love jazz enjoy it at home rather than be disappointed at a club where the audience is unappreciative and the establishment doesn’t provide a good sound system.

Youth Involvement

Meanwhile, music programs in grade schools and high schools are being eliminated, including the Boston public school district, which has no music program. Banulis argues that a person is less likely to appreciate good music if they don’t know what it takes to play the instrument.

Walker remembers that when he was growing up, every child in school was given an instrument to play. It cost twenty-five cents per week. And if a child played for two years and made progress, the instrument was theirs to keep. But now, children aren’t introduced to playing music at a young age so are less likely to decide to play in high school and college.

“I am deeply concerned that people who show jazz as their favorite music is one percent in Boston,” said Banulis. “That ain’t much to keep a jazz scene going.”

Musicians are reluctant to give up on jazz entirely, though. Ray Barron booked the performances for the Hi-Hat club when it was one of several jazz clubs along Massachusetts Avenue. He remembers how musicians from the music schools in the area wanted a place to jam. This continues to be true.

Dylan Heaney, a saxophonist and student at Berklee College of Music said that Boston is still a great place for jazz. “We just need more places to play,” he said.

Next: An Evening with Harold Layne

More Stories

South End Home
Boston’s Place in Jazz History
The Disappearance of Boston Jazz
An Evening with Harold Layne

More about South End Jazz

National England Jazz Alliance
Wally’s Jazz Café
Bob the Chef’s Restaurant and Jazz Café

Thriving jazz scene

map of South End’s popular jazz spots



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