I was playing in a hotel bar with a trio in downtown Boston. This was in the very early ’90s. I don’t remember how Fred got there; probably one of the people who were helping me to book at that point contacted him and brought him. He just came over and said, “Wow! Where are you from? Panama? Oh my God! You play the piano like that?” He was so friendly right away. I felt supported from the moment I met him.
He said, “I have an idea!” [Laughs] That was his first thing. He said, “I want to introduce you to Boston—people gotta hear you.” And I was like, “What?” I guess he was just making the transition from his experience in [legendary Boston jazz clubs] Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop and he was starting to book at Scullers [which he did for 26 years]. And he said to me, “How would you feel if I put a band together for you—Claudio Roditi on trumpet, Billy Pierce on tenor, Alan Dawson [on drums]—I think they’d love to do it and I’ll introduce you as the young, new kid in town.” So that was my first gig with him at Scullers; I got to play with the great Alan Dawson. I’ll never forget that night.
From then on, Fred was crucial. That great introduction immediately resonated in other circles in New York. I was also playing at that time at the Top of the Gate, and [record-label executive, then at RCA] Steve Backer and some other record-company people came in. I realized later that they knew Fred, and he’d said, “You’ve got to hear this kid!” I ended up signing with Steve at RCA Novus, and then I signed with [manager] Ted Kurland, who came to see me at Scullers.
Fred became my huge support not only artistically, but also in terms of friendship. I was living alone—that was before I met my girlfriend, who became my wife—and he’d call me and say, “Hey, what are you doing? Are you on the road or are you here? It’s time for chicken wings!” We loved chicken wings, and he would come and pick me up and then we would go and wing out. He would say, “You wanna go wing it?” We went to a place called La Rotisserie in Chestnut Hill. Great conversations about everything, about life, about the relationship he had with a lot of the great giants. Sometimes I would go home and say, “Man, I was just reading the Miles autobiography and I saw his name in it,” and I would realize this guy is heavy.
He used to crack me up all the time. He had a huge repertoire of musician jokes. “What do you call a trombone player with a beeper?” At that time trombone players had beepers. “An optimist.” [Laughs] A guy’s at a bar drinking vodka tonic, and a monkey comes into the bar and pees in his drink. The guy gets really upset and tells the bartender, “Oh my God, a monkey peed in my drink!” Bartender says, “Hey man, that’s not our monkey. It’s the piano player’s monkey.” So he goes to the piano player and says, “Hey man, your monkey peed in my drink!” And the piano player turns to him and said, “Man, I’ve been a piano player for 20 years and I’ve never heard that song. But maybe if you whistle it, I can follow it.” [Laughs] Stuff like that.
This is another thing that I’ll never forget: He introduced me to a singer called Eva Cassidy. He played me her version of “Over the Rainbow,” and we were in the car listening to it. He’d told me the whole story about her sickness [melanoma, from which she died at 33] and how she became a sensation all of a sudden on [British] radio [two years after her death]—and I started to feel like I was going to cry. I’m holding it in and I don’t want to look at him because I don’t want to be embarrassed, and … man, I had to let it go and just started crying. And I looked at him, and he was totally in there! Tears coming out of his eyes. He looked at me and he said, “I hear you, man! That’s why I want you to hear this.” And we were both in deep tears. We started laughing because we’d both tried to hide it from each other! [Laughs] To have that moment together, that intimacy—I told him that I was grateful forever and he said, “Me too. I appreciate what just happened today.” I still get goosebumps when I remember that. There’s nobody else I can think of in the promotional area of the music who I’ve had that kind of experience with.
I loved Fred so much. He was able to plant the seed of the love I have for this city, and the idea of working and staying in Boston. He taught us that when we live in a place, we have to use our music and be proactive to bring people together in the community. It was easy to want to stay around in Boston with Fred Taylor.
[as told to Mac Randall]