Riff Tide

Boston's jazz scene has seen a lot of changes since I set foot here for the first time as an 18-year-old freshman at Boston University in 1968. But it wasn't jazz I looked for first; it was a basketball court. BU had only one, and everybody shared it. So a group of us, mainly guys from New York and New Jersey, struck out to find some public courts. One was near Fenway Park, and another, on the corner of Mass. Ave. and Columbus.

For many of my basketball-playing pals, coming away to college in Boston was their first visit to New England. For me, it was a kind of homecoming. In the late 1940s my family had lived in Rhode Island, where my father was a radio announcer. It didn't pay enough to support a wife and three kids, so shortly after I wasborn he said good-bye to radio and we moved from New England to New Jersey.

My father told me before I left for BU about the many Boston jazz clubs. When I arrived, I searched for them in vain. Yet right where I was shooting hoops on Mass. Ave. and Columbus was the site of what had once been one of Boston's most famous night spots: the Hi-Hat.

By then, Boston's lively history of jazz had faded perceptibly. It had begun with an appearance in 1919 by one of the most popular syncopated big bands from New York, James Reese Europe and his 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band. Before his military service, Europe had led one of the most popular of New York's society dance bands. The 369th returned home from World War I as decorated heroes, having led the Allied forces out of France. On May 9, 1919, just two days after recording for the Pathe label, Jim Europe and his band appeared in Boston at Mechanics Hall. (Unfortunately, during that concert one of Europe's drummers, who had just been admonished by the leader, pulled out a penknife and fatally wounded him.)

Saxophonist Benny Waters came to Boston in 1921 to study, for a time playing Saturday afternoon dances at Berkeley Hall with a band led by banjo and guitar player Bobby Johnson. Johnny Hodges was also in that band.

Born in Brockton in 1908 and raised in Boston, trumpeter Max Kaminsky says he was playing around Boston by 1922, but dance halls and college fraternity houses were the only places he could play hot music. Shepherd's Colonial Tea Room broadcast Max's favorite band, Pearly Breed with Warren Hookway on trumpet. He also mentions running into Louis Armstrong in 1929 at the Railroad Club, a boarding house for “professional Negroes.”

There were lots of places to hear jazz. Butler's Hall, near Columbus and Ruggles, featured many different types of functions, even battles of the bands.

But by the 1960s, things had slowed considerably. Sure, in 1963 and '64 the Jazz Workshop and Paul's Mall had opened on Boylston Street, with Keith Jarrett as house pianist. Both clubs had closed by 1978.

“The late '60s is when the really tough jazz period began,” says Fred Taylor, who should know: He not only had owned both of those downtown clubs but also had booked music for another club on Route 1 in Peabody, Lenny's on the Turnpike, which had closed several years earlier.

Several factors were at work. Rock and disco took their toll, both clear signals that audiences' tastes had changed. Inflation caused transportation and housing costs to chew up much of what a group could charge for a performance. The political climate made some whites reluctant to go to clubs in black areas. And urban renewal wiped out several of the old jazz sites.

Still, a set of countervailing trends — the growth of college jazz programs, and of a handful of organizations set up to promote jazz — helped keep the music itself alive even as the club scene dried up. Berklee College of Music, for example, grew from a one-room music studio to what it is today: probably the best-known educator of jazz musicians in the world, with topnotch faculty such as vibraphonist Gary Burton and saxophonist Billy Pierce, a veteran of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Over the years Berklee has turned out the likes of former and current Tonight Show bandleaders Branford Marsalis and Kevin Eubanks, as well as trumpeter Roy Hargrove and guitarist Pat Metheny.

In early 1968, Gunther Schuller, president of the New England Conservatory of Music, met with saxophonist Carl Atkins, and the result was what is now NEC's jazz program. Core faculty members included George Russell and Jaki Byard. Pianist Ran Blake arrived later. Early students included Stanton Davis and Roxbury's own Ricky Ford, who came to NEC through a program established with the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts.

Trumpeter Mark Harvey came to Boston around that time and had trouble finding places to hear or play jazz. So Harvey founded the Jazz Coalition in 1969. Over the next dozen years, the coalition presented “all-night” concerts that often literally ended with breakfast, and a series entitled Jazz Celebrations, held at the Old West Church and, later, at Emmanuel Church. In 1973, it put on Boston Jazz Week — 100 events in seven days, including concerts, films, and lectures. The Boston Jazz Society had its start about the same time, beginning as a gathering of friends, says Sonny Carrington, its third president (and father of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington).

In the '70s, '80s, and '90s, a number of short-lived jazz clubs appeared and quickly disappeared: Estelle's, Lulu White's. But today, conditions appear healthier. Several clubs regularly book nationally known jazz artists. Some smaller clubs — Mass. Ave. stalwart Wally's among them — book area musicians and charge lower (if any) covers.

It's as if the town is readying itself for an encore of its jazz heyday.