Friday, December 06, 2002

From the In Box: Pulling the Plug IX
In response to Ed Hazell's recent essay on the Willow, a long-gone Somerville jazz club, Stu Vandermark, a contributor to Cadence, sent the following message to the Boss Improv mailing list, which discusses the Boston-area jazz and improvised music scene:

What most people probably do not know is that the mid-1980s was the best time for jazz in Boston since the 1950s (The 1950s -- by certain measures -- was the best time for jazz in Boston and just about every other city in the U.S. as well). In my view (for what that's worth), the Willow was the most important jazz club in Boston during the 1980s. I know that sounds ludicrous to anyone who arrived here during the early 1990s or later, but it was an important place at a time when often incredible jazz of all types was pouring out of clubs around town.

There were many reasons that the Willow was important but most of those reasons are based on two facts:

1) No one had to pay to play. In other words, the owners of the club did not charge a booker or the musicians to perform. Right off the bat that meant that there were no economic limitations to dictate the type of music to be performed. So you had everything from two-beat to swing to the cocktail lounge singers to free players all the time. Also, the lack of economic limitations meant that there were no qualitative restrictions. Anyone from a Berklee freshman to Joseph Jarman could (and did) play there.

2) Brian Walkley booked the place. I used to joke about Brian's misspellings in my column back then (and in fact do it again in the latest issue of Cadence). But he was completely democratic. He misspelled names without prejudice. It didn't matter whether you were Joe Smithth or Joe Muneri, you got the same treatment. The up side was that no matter who you were, you could get booked there. The only difference is that the internationally known musicians tended to be booked on Friday and Saturday nights. (Although I saw such giants as George Duvivier, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and Jimmy Giuffre during the middle of the week.) The only difficult part for most people was getting hold of Brian in the first place. He was a busy, elusive man. As for myself, I always found him very supportive any time I put on gigs (which usually were off the wall type things -- two drummers and a bassist, three drummers, stuff like that).

Yes, the Willow was out of the way (but it was amazing how people figured out how to pack the club two nights each month when James Williams brought his groups in, and on other "big" nights). Yes, the bar side (and that swinging door) could be noisy, but even the celebrities dealt with it (and the problem grew worse after about 1990; the juke box got louder and the bar people became less considerate). Also, one must remember that during the 1980s music in the sonic realm of Morton Feldman was relegated to academia. In other words, just as jazz performed acoustically by four or more people in Jordan Hall is a sonic disaster, Jordan Hall is the ideal place for low volume, slow-moving music. It was understood that the Willow was a jazz club. By the way (although this point is not completely relevant), invariably whenever I took European friends to jazz clubs around Boston, their favorite club was the Willow. They claimed that it best fit their image of what a "real" jazz club was like.

But whatever good environmental and other qualities the club had in the 1980s, they were pretty much gone by the beginning of the 1990s. The piano no longer was maintained. The tape deck, turntable, and sound system had been dead for many years. The live radio shows on WERS were no more than a memory. Even the weekend gigs were dying qualitatively. By the time it closed, the only gigs that drew large audiences were the Wednesday (and later Monday) Fringe nights.

So, yes, during the 1990s the Willow was a dump. It never was pretty. But during the 1980s it was the center of the spectrum of jazz activity from the novices to the names, month after month. One of the important side benefits of the qualitative and formal spectrum of the music performed was the openness of the musicians in Boston during the 1980s. At the Willow (and to some extent at other clubs), swing musicians would run into free players who would encounter the beboppers, and they would hang and listen to each other's music. For example, anyone from Gary Valente to Raphé Malik would sit in with the Fringe, and you might find Alan Dawson or Bill Pierce in the audience, just hanging. We are much poorer for not having the Willow (or something like it) today. -- Stu Vandermark

Stu Vandermark is the father of MacArthur Fellow Ken Vandermark.

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