Jazz has become fringe art. Sure, Chris Botti and Diana Krall still move tickets, but the talented students pouring out of Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory face a tough economic reality: Graduates often make more money behind the counter at Starbucks than blowing their horns.
But young players can take heart in an upswing in the scene. The South End’s Beehive has done so well booking jazz in the past seven years, the owners opened a club with a similar vibe — Beat Hotel in Harvard Square, which celebrated its first anniversary last fall.
“You go to New York and walk into a place in the Village and people are killing it,” Beehive and Beat Hotel music director Bruce Ferrara said. “In Boston, often it’s something cliche or warmed over. What I’ve been trying to do is bring in music that’s real, honest and legit, and that means fun.”
It also means fewer Cole Porter standards and more progressive, more adventurous jam sessions — the kind of sessions at which those Berklee and Conservatory alums excel.
“Bruce is doing an incredible job putting together left-of-center shows with a limited budget,” Conservatory grad Noah Preminger said. “This music is always a hard sell and having those two venues helps, but unless you move to Europe, it’s always going to be a struggle to make a living doing this.”
Like so many, Preminger went to New York after graduation to establish himself. He did — Preminger found a label and became a rising star. But he moved back to Boston because, even with the limited amount of clubs here, he knew he could thrive. That, and he was “tired of driving around until four in the morning looking for a parking spot.”
The Beehive and Beat Hotel are doing well by doing something different, but not all jazz fans are into Ornette Coleman avant garde and experimental, late-period John Coltrane. Some listeners want those Cole Porter standards.
“That’s who we’re catering to at Les Zygomates,” booker and jazz musician Ron Poster said. “Five nights a week, we have jazz that’s more traditional but still swings. For a while, the booker took things in a more inaccessible direction. I’m concentrating on the classics, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Gershwin.”
Jazz continues to struggle on the radio — WGBH and WERS have drastically cut back their programing in recent years. But we live in a rare city where, without paying a cover, fans can hear all sorts of nightly iterations of the music at Les Zyg, the Beehive, Beat Hotel and Wally’s — which is “still the club where you go if you want to hear the next generation of stars coming up in Boston,” Poster said. Scullers, Regattabar and Ryles continue to book local and national touring acts.
Try to find that many jazz clubs in Denver or Des Moines.
“I’m not sure there’s going to be a resurgence,” Ferrara said. “But, little by little, I have been upping the temperature, trying to take it to another level. The jazz scene in the city is not where we want it to be, but it’s better than it was a few years ago.”