The Troy Street Observer

Apr 15, 1981: Michael’s Jazz Club Closes

Photo of James Williams
A Michael’s regular: James Williams in 1979

The days approaching Tax Day have sometimes been troubled ones for Boston’s jazz clubs. Take the Willow, for instance. On March 27, 1997 the Willow Jazz Club in Somerville was padlocked. The owner was in serious legal trouble and the city closed him down.

On April 9, 1978, the fabled Boylston Street clubs, the Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall,  closed. Owner Fred Taylor said he could no longer afford to stay in business.

On April 14, 1960, John McLellan, in his Jazz Scene column in the Boston Traveler, quoted a letter written by Storyville owner George Wein. The club had shut down for five weeks that spring, its first in-season closure, and was to reopen April 11. Wrote Wein: “If Storyville is successful, or even moderately successful, in this six-week period, then we will go ahead with some plans for the fall. If business is as dismal as it has been all winter, then I don’t know what the future of Storyville will be.” There wasn’t enough business. Wein turned out the lights on May 22, and closed his club.

On April 15, 1981, Ed Aronson, owner of Michael’s Jazz Club on Gainsborough Street, turned out his lights for the last time. He was forced out by his new landlord, who had other plans for  the space.

Aronson first opened a cafe at 52A Gainsborough in the early 1960s, and in 1972 he embarked on a jazz policy there that strongly favored local musicians. Michael’s Jazz Club, named for one of Ed’s sons, was born.

Michael’s was a modest place, much loved by the locals. Fred Bouchard wrote a thumbnail sketch of the club for Down Beat in May 1975: “A narrow bar with peeling 20-foot ceilings, ice-blue stage lights, no stage, well-graffitied john and reputation for late-night jamming: that’s Michael’s, an anomaly among clubs. Conservatory and Berklee students (and teachers) drop by after gigs and practice rooms fold and get all sorts of music moving. Among others, hear Small Potatoes (international sextet), Robert Athas (guitar plus three), Band X (sci-fi futurist jazz), Charlie Bechler (Hammond organ plus three). 50¢ cover nightly ‘til two (at least). Bring your ax.”

Two local residencies are well-remembered by 1970s jazz listeners: Jaki Byard’s Apollo Stompers on Wednesdays, and the Fringe on Mondays. Aronson noted that the Fringe  missed two Mondays in five years—one for Christmas, and the other for the Blizzard of ‘78. Others seen and heard at Michael’s were Mike Stern, Stan Strickland, Gray Sargent, James Williams, Tiger’s Baku, and Ricky Ford.

In the later years, Aronson sometimes booked New York bands on the weekends, a list that included Eric Kloss, Bobby Watson, Dave Liebman, John Schofield, Bob Berg, and Kenny Kirkland.

Michael’s closed on April 15, and Aronson soon announced the club would reopen in Allston, in the basement beneath a Commonwealth Ave restaurant called Play-It-Again-Sam’s, a place that in 1981 showed old movies while people ate dinner, and later became a comedy club. The cellar was readied and James Williams was booked for the grand reopening on September 17…and at the last minute, the building owner backed out, saying the drumming would prove too big a distraction to the restaurant crowd upstairs.

With that, Aronson gave up his plan to reopen and found a new line of work, and a local jazz institution disappeared from the Boston scene.

Here is a musical memory from Michael’s artists, if not from Michael’s itself. Saxophonist Bob Berg was one of the last to play the club in April 1981, and guitarist Mike Stern was a Michael’s regular while at Berklee. Here they are ten years after with “Friday Night at the Cadillac Club,” recorded in Japan in 1990.

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One response to “Apr 15, 1981: Michael’s Jazz Club Closes”

  1. I remember going to Michael’s one night and seeing/hearing this student piano player. His name was Kenny Werner. He was playing an electric keyboard and he floored me. It was the first time I had heard anyone play an electric piano but made it sound like and acoustic instrument. Fascinating! I became alife long fan of Kenny right then and there!

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