Fred Taylor ranks among the most crucial figures in Boston’s jazz history. As much an institution as the Berklee College of Music, Storyville, and WGBH radio, he ran some of the city’s most important jazz venues, brought major artists to town, gave Berklee and New England Conservatory students a place to workshop, and constantly scouted new talent. To boot, he was an incredibly nice guy.
Disclosure: I got to know Fred during my 12 years with The Boston Globe, where one of my hats was jazz critic. I treasure our conversations by the bar at Scullers, the venerable club where Fred would share his enthusiasm for a young musician he had just heard. Once he called and implored me to come hear a Berklee student who he guaranteed would become a star. Hiromi hadn’t yet recorded her first album.
Sadly, Taylor, who died in 2019 at age 90, did not live to see the publication of his lively memoir, What, and Give Up Showbiz? It’s a breezy read that brings to life the travails that went on behind the scenes in order for live entertainment to happen.
After graduating from Boston University, Taylor worked for his family’s mattress business but quickly decided it wasn’t for him. The event that would define his career happened in 1952, when he brought some recording gear to George Wein’s Storyville club and asked for permission to record Dave Brubeck’s set. That tape became part of Brubeck’s album Jazz at Storyville, led to a lifelong friendship with the pianist, and charted Taylor’s course.
Taylor recounts the joys and challenges of running the clubs Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop, and his encounters with such jazz royalty as Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley, Les McCann, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Taylor’s interests spread beyond jazz—he worked with Earth, Wind & Fire, Diana Ross, and the Rolling Stones; ventured into comedy; and operated a movie theater. Most revealing are his thoughts on his 26 years running Scullers, marked by battles with the hotel that housed the club and ultimately fired him. “‘Upset’ and ‘disappointed’ don’t even come close to how I felt,” he writes. “I was hurt.”
For a student of Boston’s entertainment scene, it’s fascinating stuff. What, and Give Up Showbiz? is less a memoir with a narrative arc than a collection of memories. It could have used stronger editing—there’s too much “I’ll tell that story in chapter 9” and “that’s where we pick up the story in this chapter”—and he repeats some anecdotes, like the one about clam juice dripping through the ceiling from a restaurant above Paul’s Mall during a Gary Puckett show. On the other hand, it’s his casual, folksy style that makes the book feel like a conversation. It’s almost like chatting with him by the bar at Scullers.