The Troy Street Observer

June 22, 1921: Pianist Al Vega Born in Worcester

Photo of Al Vega
Al Vega, ca. 1974

Anybody who’s familiar with Boston jazz knows about pianist and arranger Al Vega, by virtue of his 69 years as a professional musician here, from 1938 to 1942, and then from 1946 until his death in 2011 (he served in the army 1942-1946). That covers the tenures of 9 Boston mayors, 13 U.S. presidents, and 24 Red Sox managers. That’s a lot of coming and going.

Vega (born Aram Vagramian, in Worcester) was one of the young musicians who advanced quickly during the war as they replaced army-bound older musicians. Vega was a frequent substitute in the name bands, and a regular at the Ken Club jam sessions, where he played alongside Sidney Bechet, Red Allen, and Jo Jones. Then Vega, too, went into the service.

Jazz jobs weren’t abundant after the war, and Vega worked in dance bands—George Graham, Ruby Newman, Syd Ross—while completing his studies at the New England Conservatory.

In 1950, Vega caught on as the intermission pianist at the Hi-Hat. That job grew into leading the house trio, and he had a memorable one, with bassist Jack Lawlor and drummer Jimmy Zitano. Vega also recorded for Prestige, first in October 1951 and again in January 1953. Only one other Bostonian was as investment-worthy as Vega as far as Prestige was concerned, and that was Charlie Mariano.

In the early fifties at the Hi-Hat, Vega met and played with the best players in modern jazz, and appeared regularly on Symphony Sid’s radio broadcasts. That, together with those Prestige dates, started talk that Vega should go on the road in a quest for national recognition. But he said no. He wanted to stay with his family.

Vega thus closed a door, and when the Hi-Hat job ended in 1953, he became a local jazz vagabond, sometimes as a single but more often with a trio, moving from room to room. His drummers included Joe Locatelli, Johnny Rae, and Al Francis. His bassists included Rosemary Stairret, Slam Stewart, and Joe DeWeese. In 1957-58, he assembled what might have been his best trio, with bassist Alex Cirin and drummer Alan Dawson. This group recorded the All By Al album, released on the Cupid label (CULP 500) in 1958.

But Vega was only getting started in 1958. Over the next 50 years, dozens of Boston-area rooms hung out the “All Vega Trio Nightly” sign for some number of weeks or months or even years. There were far more of those than there were of even Red Sox managers.

Vega just kept working, working, working, year after year and room after room. In fact, he had a gig at Scullers the night of his 90th birthday, in 2011. You could hear the evidence of Erroll Garner and George Shearing in his playing that night just as you could have heard it sixty years before at the Hi-Hat. It worked for him. People liked it. He didn’t have to change it.

To the music. First up is one of those Prestige 78s, “Fantastic,” a Vega original recorded in 1951, with Jack Lawlor and Sonny Taclof.

Vega had a long-running Sunday night gig at Lucky’s in Boston, and here is a short video captured there in 2010 when Al was 89, a snippet of “Green Dolphin Street:”

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