Jazz impresario Fred Taylor, who presented legends and emerging artists alike in the Boston area for more than five decades, died on Oct. 26. He was 90. As the founder of two of the Massachusetts capital’s most important jazz clubs—Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop—Taylor promoted artists such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Charles Mingus during the height of their careers. He went on to book jazz and even some pop music at venues throughout New England, including the club Scullers, which he ran for more than 25 years. Taylor had been battling cancer for the last few years, but he was still a ubiquitous presence on the Boston jazz scene.
Born in Boston on June 29, 1929, Taylor was raised in nearby Newton. Although he studied piano as a youth and played a little drums, it was as a fan and advocate of jazz that he found his calling. Like many young people in the 1940s and ’50s, Taylor was captivated by a new form of jazz called bebop, typified by artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. He got a degree from Boston University, but jazz became his major area of study, and he took it in the way most aficionados do: going to see live shows, collecting albums, listening to the radio, and simply hanging out. His parents owned a mattress and upholstery business, at which he worked while gaining his jazz legs.
Taylor first started promoting shows around Boston in 1961, dealing with a mix of jazz and folk acts. In 1965 he and his business partner Tony Mauriello bought two nightclubs, both located—inexplicably enough—in adjacent basements of a building near Copley Square. Renamed Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop, the two venues would go on to present a who’s-who of modern jazz, from legends of the bebop generation to young innovators of the fusion era.
The Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall became not only hotbeds for jazz, but also destinations for up-and-coming musicians studying jazz at the nearby Berklee College of Music. Among the young players who frequented the club in the ’70s were Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Al Di Meola, and many others who helped shape the music’s future. Metheny played his first real shows as a leader at Taylor’s clubs and would go on to do shows for and with Taylor for the rest of his career.
In 1978 the two venues closed; Taylor and Mauriello then bought a movie theater across the Charles River in Cambridge, the Harvard Square Theater, which they ran for eight years. It was during that time that Miles Davis decided to come out of retirement with a new band featuring Mike Stern, Bill Evans, Marcus Miller, Al Foster, and Minu Cinelu. In 1981, Davis asked Taylor to promote his comeback gigs, and Taylor presented the trumpeter’s latest incarnation in a series of eight shows at a Kenmore Square venue called Kix that was more disco than jazz club. Miles’ coming-out party in Boston became international news, and the material recorded at Kix was later released on the album We Want Miles, named after the chants that greeted Davis and the group at those first shows.
The second act of Taylor’s career began in 1990, when he took over the lounge at the Embassy Suites Hotel back on the other side of the Charles—eventually to become a DoubleTree, part of the Hilton chain—and turned it into a full-fledged jazz venue called Scullers. Under his leadership, the club became an essential part of the local music landscape. Once again, Taylor presented both established artists and emerging players, often giving the latter some crucial early breaks. Trumpeter Jason Palmer told the Boston Globe that, true to form, Taylor offered him his first headlining shows. “He really took an interest,” Palmer told the Globe. “That was one of his hallmarks, finding young talent and then just giving them a platform and giving them a chance to build an audience.”
One young talent that Taylor took under his wing was the saxophonist Grace Kelly, whom he met when she was just 13 years old. He became both Kelly’s mentor and advocate, recommending her to everyone and anyone in the jazz community. Their relationship reflects a lifelong pattern of seeking out new artists, presenting them as performers, and then working to raise both the industry and the public’s awareness of their importance. Taylor also often spoke with deep emotion about his discovery and promotion of the singer Eva Cassidy, who died before achieving national acclaim.
Pianist Danilo Pérez remembers meeting Taylor almost 30 years ago. “I was playing a set at a bar in a hotel in downtown Boston in 1990 and a friend of mine brought Fred to the show,” Pérez says. “I was thrilled to meet him. He got so excited after our set and was very friendly and supportive from the beginning. After he heard me play, he said, ‘I’ve got an idea…’ He proposed a concert in Boston with Claudio Roditi, Billy Pierce, John Lockwood, and Boston legend Alan Dawson. It was my introduction in Boston as a bandleader and the beginning of a long-lasting friendship with Fred.”
This supportiveness made Taylor beloved by artists, who would often hang long after their sets at Scullers to hear him tell jokes and trade tales. A great listener—not only to music but also to other people’s stories—and naturally curious with diverse interests, he could just as well interview you as the other way around. He was particularly enamored of classic comedy and could recite large parts of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s “2000 Year Old Man” routines. (In the early years at Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop, he had frequently presented and promoted standup comics like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, and Bill Cosby as well as jazz musicians.) Though always ready to reminisce or wax nostalgic, Taylor did not live in the past but was always listening to the music of the present.
In a move that was widely unpopular in Boston and even drew national criticism, Hilton Hotels, the owner of Scullers, terminated its relationship with Taylor in 2016. This ended his reign of more than a quarter-century at the club, which had recently been rebuilt and expanded in a different part of the DoubleTree, ironically under Taylor’s guidance. Although he was 87 at the time, Taylor did not rest on his laurels, continuing to promote Kelly and other artists he believed in. During his last few years, he worked on his autobiography and fought the cancer that would eventually end his life. Fortunately, the book was finished with help from writer and historian Dick Vacca and will be published in the spring.
Asked to sum up what made Taylor so unique, Pérez says, “He lived for the music and had the ability to scout talent and find ways to support it. He was very generous and genuine about forging relationships with artists. He had an ability to create community and keep jazz alive while keeping his inner child and sense of wonder.”
Funeral services for Taylor were scheduled to be held on Oct. 30 in Brookline, Mass. He leaves no immediate family (“I’m married to the business,” he once told an interviewer). Kelly and her family have created a scholarship fund in Taylor’s name for young jazz musicians studying at Berklee; they request that, in lieu of flowers, jazz fans and colleagues consider donating to that fund.