September 7, 1966: Varty’s Jazz Room Opens
Varty Haroutunian had been on the Boston scene for 25 years when he opened Varty’s Jazz Room in September 1966. His claim to fame was as a founding member of the original Jazz Workshop and his nine years as tenor saxophonist at the Stable, where he led the small group that played three nights per week, and played in the sax section in the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra on two more. He was a key figure in Boston’s jazz scene at mid-century, and one, Pomeroy said, who never got the credit he deserved.
Varty had a second role at the Stable, as the business manager for the bands, and in the last few years, as manager of the club itself. The Stable closed in 1962, and when owner Harold Buchhalter reopened on Boylston Street the following year, the club’s name was the Jazz Workshop. Haroutunian managed the club from 1963 to mid 1966 and made it a success, but he ended up as the odd man out when Buchhalter sold the club to Fred Taylor’s group. He wanted to stay in the club business, though, even if it meant competing with the firmly established Jazz Worshop and Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike.
The only room Haroutunian could find was on Tremont Street, in the basement of the Hotel Bradford, where the Carousel Club and Storyville (its final location) once operated. It was a questionable choice, and Varty’s wife and partner Elsa opposed it. By late 1966, the Theatre District, as they say in baseball, had lost its fastball. The Majestic and Plymouth Theatres were gone, converted into movie theaters, and the “tryout town” economy in which Boston had thrived was slumping. And the Combat Zone wasn’t just encroaching on the District, it had encroached, and strippers were bumping and grinding a block away on Stuart Street. Haroutunian would have trouble attracting the audience he needed to make a go of a name band room.
September 7, opening night, a double bill, Anita O’Day with Ray Santisi’s trio and Art Farmer’s Quintet, and even though O’Day didn’t arrive until Art Farmer was already on the bandstand, the night was a sold-out success. Les McCann followed, and then came Erroll Garner.
Garner was one of the biggest draws in jazz in 1966, and this was his first nightclub engagement in Boston since April 1959. As Elsa recalled, “It was a nightmare. He wanted a lot of money for those days, and even though the place was mobbed for every show and we did well at the door, whatever came in went out to pay Garner. So he made a lot of money, but he only paid his sidemen $100 for the week. And he told the waitresses that he was going to tip them at the end of the week, but he never did. He stiffed the waitresses! And I remember, we’re sitting with Garner, writing his check, and he tells Varty, ‘now that you’re in the big time, don’t get greedy.”
The Haroutunians gave it their best shot, presenting Carmen McRae, Art Blakey, Junior Mance, Cal Tjader, and others. But Boston couldn’t support three name-band rooms, and Varty’s problematic location again made him the odd man out. The club closed after about six months. And Haroutunian, after a quarter century in jazz, threw in the towel and went to work as a store manager for one of the supermarket chains. Enough, he figured, was enough.