For 90-year-old Everett jazz man, the gig rolls on and on
Al Vega has a gig. He’s got another one in two days, playing a free concert in his hometown, Everett. As usual, he’ll be at Antonia’s in Revere over the weekend, and at Lucky’s Lounge for Sinatra Sundays. The versatile pianist has also been rehearsing for an upcoming Jazz Fest cruise.
The busy schedule is nothing new for Vega. He’s been doing this since the 1930s.
Inside the converted one-car garage behind the musician’s home in Everett, the walls are crowded with framed photos of Vega with some of his famous colleagues from over the decades: Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis. You could write a book about the 90-year-old jazz man’s musical experiences.
In fact, someone has. Leonard Brown is a professor in the department of African-American studies at Northeastern University. He met Vega about 10 years ago, at a talk given by the jazz historian Nat Hentoff, whom Vega once taught some music theory. Brown was enthralled with Vega’s stories of playing some of Boston’s biggest ballrooms and nightclubs - the Roseland, the Hi-Hat - back in the heyday of swing and bebop.
Over a couple of years, Brown and Vega met at the Green Street Grill in Cambridge for afternoon rap sessions. Brown kept a tape recorder running, and the result is the self-published book “Boston’s Jazz Legend: The Al Vega Story.’’
“If you push him, there’s all this incredible history that comes out,’’ said Brown, speaking via Skype from the island of Tobago, where he was leading more than a dozen Northeastern students on an annual Afro-Caribbean musical research project.
Vega, who taught for years at Berklee and continues to give lessons, long ago chose the stability of local gigging over a life on the road. He cut a few records for the Prestige label in the 1950s and a novelty single, “The Basketball Twist,’’ with members of the
After Alan went off to school, Vega continued coaching. He just completed his 49th Babe Ruth season. Vega’s tales of sitting in with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Count Basie, and countless other jazz giants are phenomenal, said his biographer. More importantly, Brown said, “He’s a wonderful person. That’s the real story here.’’
The pianist has grown slight, but no less sharp, with age. Wearing plaid shorts, a sky-blue T-shirt, moccasins, and a gold chain with a pendant of two quarter notes, Vega picked at a veggie burger on a hot afternoon recently. He’d just returned from dialysis treatment, which he receives three times a week. His tenant and caretaker, Linda Gaffney, hovered over him with a dish towel over her shoulder.
They were visited by Kathy Dion, an aspiring jazz singer, who wore stylish glasses and a yellow spaghetti-strap dress. A hairdresser by trade, she used to do Martha’s hair.
Vega attributes his longevity to the vast range of his musical knowledge and his willingness to keep up with trends and play in different styles.
Though he grew up idolizing Basie during the big-band era, he quickly came to appreciate the radical changes brought on by bop musicians such as Parker, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk, whose tunes Louis Armstrong famously ridiculed as “Chinese music.’’
“I was advanced harmonically, I guess,’’ said Vega.
Later, during long runs at Lennie’s on the Turnpike and the old Maridor in Framingham, he embraced some of the dance crazes of the ’60s and the international influences of the ’70s and ’80s. “Some guys, it’s 30 years later, and they’re playing the same way,’’ he said. “I try everything on the job.’’
“I wish I had your repertoire,’’ the late pianist Horace Silver once told him. Over the years, Vega helped develop plenty of singers, including Rebecca Parris, who played with him for years at the Airport Hilton. He ran talent nights that often featured as many as 15 singers. He could have tried his hand as a composer. One of his best friends, Jack Gold, urged him to head to Hollywood when he became an executive at Columbia Records. But that would have meant giving up his gigs at a time when he was working seven nights a week. “I would have starved my family’’ to get established as a songwriter, Vega said.
Sitting at the piano in his garage, he paged through an old scrapbook, then set it down. It was time to get ready. Tonight he’d be playing the vibraphone. The parts to his vibes leaned in a cramped corner, beneath a sagging shelf loaded with baseball trophies. Everett is planning to name a nearby intersection Al Vega Square, and is considering a permanent display of some of the musician’s memorabilia.
At his 90th birthday party at Scullers at the end of June, Vega and his trio welcomed a steady stream of guest performers. They played for three hours without a break. He thought nothing of it. Said Vega with a smile: “Once my adenaline gets going . . . ’’