Fred Taylor has made a lot of friends over the years, including some of the biggest names in music. From the mid-’60s through the ’70s, Taylor ran adjoining clubs on Boylston Street, booking Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis at the Jazz Workshop while introducing Boston audiences to Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley and Billy Joel at Paul’s Mall. And from 1989 until earlier this year, Taylor served as artistic director at Scullers Jazz Club, presenting the Boston debuts of Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum and Michael Bublé while nurturing such talents as Danilo Pérez, Esperanza Spalding and Grace Kelly (pictured with Taylor).
“He’s done so much for me to open doors, introduce me to people—there are so many agents and musicians that I’ve met and before I can say a word, they say, ‘Fred’s been telling me about you,’” says Brookline-bred saxophonist Kelly, 25, who was only 13 when Taylor first booked her band to play Scullers. “He does that for every young talent that really perks his ears.”
Now it’s time to return the favor. After Taylor was let go from Scullers in February (he’s since gone on to book shows at the Cabot in Beverly, among other venues), Kelly met with her parents and local bandleader Bo Winiker, who proposed a scholarship in Taylor’s name. “We were so excited, because of the idea of his legacy living on forever,” Kelly says. Berklee President Roger Brown embraced the plan for his college.
So on Sept. 12, Kelly will co-host an all-star Fred Taylor Endowed Scholarship Fund benefit concert at the Berklee Performance Center. In addition to Kelly and pianist Pérez, performers will include vocalists Kurt Elling, Catherine Russell and Kat Edmonson, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, bassist John Patitucci, trumpeter Jason Palmer and harmonica ace James Montgomery.
“We all love Fred!” says guitarist Pat Metheny, who’ll appear to add a few words about Taylor. “He’s an absolute original, an icon, and one of the best people any of us who have known over the years could ever hope to know.”
Metheny first met Taylor in the mid-’70s when he performed at the Jazz Workshop with vibraphonist Gary Burton and was subsequently booked to play a week with his own trio featuring bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Bob Moses. “Think of the amount of great stuff he has heard in his life,” Metheny says. “What has always stood out to me with Fred is his genuine interest in the music.”
A Newton native, Taylor bought his first record, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts,” in about 1949. “There are two elements that would frame my career: music—and predominately jazz, but a broad spectrum of music—and humor,” says Taylor, 88, who also booked comedians at Paul’s Mall, including the Boston debut of Lily Tomlin. “Those are my two mainstays. And Dizzy possessed both of those.”
In 1952, Taylor brought an early reel-to-reel recorder to George Wein’s Storyville to document a set by pianist Dave Brubeck that they turned into a recording for Brubeck’s label. Taylor, who worked for Serta mattresses throughout the ’50s, went to Lynn to tape jazz organist Joe Bucci at a friend’s urging. They became Bucci’s managers and got him signed to Capitol Records. Taylor’s music path was set.
“It’s always been an osmosis,” Taylor says. “One thing leads to another, and I just go with it. My life’s M.O. has been that I didn’t have a specific goal in mind. I just saw something that looked interesting and said, ‘Let me work with it.’ ”
He knew how to work with the famously surly Davis, who brushed off Taylor’s initial greeting at the Workshop. “He said ‘I came to play,’ and I said, ‘OK, we start at 9, we close at 2. You’re in charge,’ and I walked away,” Taylor says. “He shot me, I shot him, and he loved it.” From there, Davis only worked with Taylor in Boston, including his famed 1981 comeback shows at Kix in Kenmore Square.
Most everyone playing the Berklee benefit has their own history with Taylor, who saw a teenaged Carrington sit in with Art Blakey at the Workshop and discovered Edmonson and then-Berklee student Pérez in small jazz rooms. “We even talked to Fred about his favorite songs and what he’d like artists to sing and play,” Kelly says. “People are going to be bouncing in and out. It’s going to be a fun, playful thing. One thing that’s always important in jazz is not to over-rehearse.”
Sounds a lot like Taylor’s storied career. ◆
The Fred Taylor Endowed Scholarship Fund Benefit Concert comes to Berklee Performance Center on September 12.
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