Fred Taylor, who for six decades brought some of the biggest names in jazz and comedy to the Boston area, died Saturday at the age of 90.
He was born in Boston in 1929. His parents were Jewish and owned a mattress and upholstery business. The family moved to Newton when he was a young boy — and his love for jazz began when he heard Dizzy Gillespie’s 1944 hit “Salt Peanuts.”
Taylor worked as a mattress salesman in the 1950s after graduating from Boston University. He played piano and dabbled as a drummer — but his mission turned out to be music promotion.
Sue Auclair, a marketing professional who worked with Taylor for decades, says Taylor would obsess over the most minute details: "He'd be there with the coffee makers and drive out to Costco and get big platters of food."
Taylor promoted jazz giants like Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, George Benson and mainstream megastars like Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
In 1981, Miles Davis picked Boston as the place to launch his comeback after years away from the music business. Davis recounted in his autobiography he wouldn’t have come to Boston for anybody but Taylor.
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"We did eight shows there with Miles," recalls Auclair. "And it was sold out before we could even print the tickets."
Auclair says the shows were transcendent. "People were in tears. People were screaming, going crazy," she remembers. "And after each set of those eight shows, people wanted encores. And they all — I don't know how it happened — they just started chanting, 'We want Miles. We want Miles.' And he would come out, play an encore and they would keep screaming."
Taylor counted many music legends as his good friends, particularly jazz icon Dave Brubeck. In a 2017 interview with WBUR, Taylor said their friendship began with a tape recorder. He had used it to tape one of Brubeck’s performances.
"At the end he says, 'I’d like to hear what you got,' " Taylor recalled in the interview. "So we jumped into my car. I drive to Newton — I’m still living with my folks — and I had a big hi-fi system, I plugged it in he says, 'Wow, that’s great!' "
The recording went on to become an early-era LP, which helped boost Brubeck's career and get him signed to Columbia Records.
In 1965 and ‘66, Taylor and a business partner bought two adjacent basement nightclubs near Copley Square — Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop. They became the high notes of Boston’s jazz scene. Taylor also branched out to the comedy business, bringing in comics like George Carlin, Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor.
Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop were admired and respected, but weren’t big enough to bring in revenue to pay the big acts. The clubs closed in '78, with B.B. King and Milt Jackson taking the final bows.
After that, Taylor and his partner bought the Harvard Square Theater. According to Taylor’s account, the movie theater was a lucrative business, and they sold it to a national chain in 1986.
His next big undertaking was Scullers Jazz Club, where he became entertainment director in 1990.
"It was basically just a hotel lounge when he got there that sometimes had music," said local jazz historian Dick Vacca. Vacca helped write Taylor’s autobiography, set to be released next spring.
"He made the business," Vacca said. "He did a lot of working, innovated, and he brought a lot of people into town. He was heartbroken when they told him that they were they were done."
Scullers let Taylor go in 2016 after a 26-year run.
Some musicians talked about boycotting the club, but Taylor insisted against it. That’s because, for Taylor, it was always about the music.
“You gotta keep that forward momentum. I mean memories are good, but don’t get caught up and stay there."
"He does it for all of the most pure, beautiful reasons," said saxophonist Grace Kelly. "He will be the first person to see a show and call someone up and be like, 'Oh my God, this talent!' "
Taylor discovered Kelly when she was just 13. She’s since gone on to become one of the biggest names in jazz.
"It's not all about numbers," Kelly said of Taylor. "It's not about, 'Oh, we didn't sell this amount of tickets.' The first thing is, 'What was the music like?' "
On Taylor’s 90th birthday this past spring, Kelly’s parents hosted a celebration at their home in Brookline. Taylor did what he called a "sit-down" comedy routine and impersonated some of his favorite comics.
At that same party, Taylor recalled advice once given by Duke Ellington: to stay focused on current projects, rather than the past.
“You gotta keep that forward momentum," said Taylor. "I mean memories are good, but don’t get caught up and stay there."
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