The Troy Street Observer

March 23, 1922: Varty Haroutunian Born

Photo of Varty Haroutunian
Varty Haroutunian at the Stable, 1959. Photo courtesy Elsa Haroutunian.

An unsung hero of Boston jazz, Varty Haroutunian, was born in Everett, Mass. on March 23, 1922. Even as a high school kid, Haroutunian played a pretty good tenor, good enough to play in the Ken Club’s wartime jam sessions with Red Allen and J.C. Higginbotham, and good enough to sub with name bands at local ballrooms. He liked Tex Beneke, but then he heard his greatest inspiration, Lester Young. Varty had his own group with Al Vega until they both went into the army in 1943. Haroutunian served in the Army Air Force and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After his discharge, Haroutunian studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music but left to tour with Freddie Slack. Back in Boston, he fell in with the beboppers—Byard, Mariano, Chaloff—and in 1953, was one of the founders of the orginal Jazz Workshop, the subject of my blog entry tomorrow.

In April 1954, Haroutunian, along with pianist Ray Santisi and drummer Peter Littman, took the Jazz Workshop around the corner, to a little saloon at 20 Huntington Ave called the Stable. There the Jazz Workshop Trio inaugurated the jazz policy that would continue until 1962, when the building was demolished. Haroutunian was there until the very end. In between, he led the Wednesday-Friday-Saturday quintet or sextet, played in the Pomeroy big band on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and served as business manager for the whole jazz operation at the Stable.

Stable owner Harold Buchalter found a new spot for his club, downstairs at 733 Boylston Street, and reopened in October 1963 with the name the musicians wanted: the Jazz Workshop. Haroutunian set aside his tenor to serve as full-time manager, a role he filled for about three years, leaving after Buchalter sold the club to Fred Taylor.

Haroutunian had another go at running a jazz club in late 1966, when he opened Varty’s Jazz Room in the Hotel Bradford. It was not a good time to be opening a name-band jazz room in the Theatre District, and though his schedule included Anita O’Day, the Art Farmer-Jimmy Heath Quintet, Erroll Garner in his his first Boston nightclub appearance in eight years, Carmen McRae, Junior Mance, and Horace Silver, the club lasted for less than six months.

The Jazz Room marked the end of Haroutunian’s jazz career. Family came first, and he went to work as a store manager for one of the supermarket chains, and never played professionally again. He died in July 2007. Herb Pomeroy told me “Varty never gets enough credit.” So we’ll remember him on his birthday, and recall a bit more tomorrow and again in April.

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  1. In October, 1966, I went into Boston to hear Art Blakey’s group. In my memory, which I admit is sometimes faulty, the club we went to was called “Varty Haroutunian’s Jazz Workshop,” and that same memory tells me it was in the basement of the Copley Square Hotel (former location of Storyville). Now, according to your research, I must be wrong. Either it had to be when Varty was still at 733 Boylston, or it was at the Hotel Bradford. I remember it was definitely a downstairs club, like 733 Boylston, but I could have sworn it was at the Copley Square Hotel (I was living in Worcester and just getting acquainted with Boston at that time; in fact, I was much better acquainted with the clubs in New York, having already been to the Half Note, Five Spot and other clubs by ’66).
    The Michael Fitzgerald/Steve Schwartz chronological listing of Blakey gigs lists the location only as “Varty’s.” Help me clear up my memory!
    As to Varty, I got to hear him quite a few times, with Herb Pomeroy’s big band and his sextet, and he’s on many records I own; always an excellent player.

    • Thank you for the posting. Varty (Vartan Haroutunian) was my father.

      There was a “Jazz Workshop” at 733 Boylston St. I have a few old schedules from the club. Varty’s Jazz Room is new to me as a name. I thought it was Varty’s Jazz Workshop. I do remember the legal tussle.

      • Thanks for the note, Eric. I do have a few advertisements from Varty’s Jazz Room, in the basement of the Hotel Bradford, in 1966. Also the Globe story on the grand opening. This all came after the Workshop. Be happy to provide copies if you are interested–I’ll be in touch.

    • Jon, it doesn’t help that all three of these locations were in basements. But I’m guessing you were in the Bradford’s basement, at Varty’s Jazz Room, which opened on Sep 7 1966. Blakey did play there in October. Varty might have called it the Jazz Workshop because for a time there was a legal tussle going on between Varty and the owners of the Boylston Street Jazz Workshop regarding who actually owned the name. The court ruled the name stayed with the club. As for thinking about Storyville, Varty’s was in the same room in the Bradford that Storyville occupied for the two seasons Ralph Snider operated it after George Wein gave it up. Clear as mud, huh?

      • Actually, that is pretty clear. I’m convinced now that I heard Blakey in the basement of the Bradford, because it was definitely October, 1966. By the way, that was an unusual version of the Messengers: It featured two young players just coming into prominence – Chuck Mangione on trumpet and Chick Corea on piano.
        I don’t think I ever knew that Storyville moved to the Bradford after George left. That makes four locations for it: The Copley Square Hotel, then up to Kenmore Square, back to the Copley and finally to the Bradford. Those zany Bostonians!

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