‘Their Minds are Wild’: Reviving Allston’s Jazz Scene
by Elena Freck, Emerson College ’22
Five years ago, saxophonist Seba Molnar took a leisurely walk near his Allston apartment and discovered Herter Park Amphitheater. The 500-seat open-air venue struck him immediately for its beautiful views of the Charles River, and for its covert location. “It’s kind of tucked away – it’s like a mini island,” Molnar says, “If you don’t know it’s there, you can almost walk right by it and not even realize it.”
Soon, Molnar and his friends began performing regularly at Herter Park. At the time, it was just one of many venues in the Boston area that jazz musicians could call home. But when the pandemic hit, performances ceased, and a few beloved venues shuttered their doors for good. The Ellis Room, Wally’s Jazz Club, and Allston’s own Great Scott and Wonder Bar all closed amidst the pandemic. The festival scene was changing too, with the Berklee-produced Beantown Jazz Festival playing its last year back in 2018. So when Friends of Herter Park approached Molnar about organizing a new jazz festival for the Amphitheater’s reopening in 2021, he didn’t hesitate.
“My hope is to fill that void,” says Molnar of the venues and festivals Boston has lost over the last few years, “There’s room in the community, and there’s a need in the community, for something like this.”
The henceforth-named Charles River Jazz Festival played for the first time in July 2021. Operating on an “almost non-existent budget,” Molnar tapped his network of local musicians to fill out the festival. The inaugural event was “small, but a great success” with over 500 attendees turning out to see five acts.
Headlining those acts was Débo Ray (photo left), a Grammy-nominated vocalist and assistant professor at Berklee. In fact, most participants in the festival emerge from either the Berklee or New England Conservatory communities: Ray, Molnar, and Albino Mbie are all Berklee alumni, and Noah Preminger graduated from NEC.
Like the city at large, Boston’s jazz scene has historically been defined by the influence of colleges and universities. Although jazz as a genre emerged out of New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it didn’t take off in Boston until the late 1940s. As Richard Vacca writes in The Boston Jazz Chronicles, the G.I. Bill sent thousands of prospective musicians flocking to NEC, Boston Conservatory, and what was then called Schillinger House (later renamed Berklee College of Music). Jazz players from Boston became known as highly educated, if a bit stilted and less organic than their New Orleans, Kansas City, or New York counterparts. In fact, New York City was a definitive post-college destination for many Boston musicians: more venues, record labels, and big names like Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk made New York look giant in comparison to Boston.
Not everyone agreed with the notion that New York ruled northeast jazz, however. In July 1981, Miles Davis played a legendary comeback concert in Boston after taking a hiatus from performing due to medical issues. Boston Globe critic Ernie Santosuosso asked him why he chose Boston for his return to live performance. Davis replied, “Why Boston? ‘Cause I love Boston. It isn’t a question of how many jazz clubs you have here. It’s the attitude of the students. The students are thinking, you know what I mean? They are not afraid to look beyond today’s music or anything else. The heavy college community you’ve got here means they’re thinking. Their minds are wild.
It seems to be those wild minds and that heavy community associated with the schools, rather than the pedagogy itself, that makes colleges like Berklee and NEC the bedrock of jazz in Boston. Seba Molnar speaks with alternating ambivalence and gratitude for his Berklee education: on one hand, he credits the origins of jazz to “the streets” rather than schools, “and a lot of times the soul of the music gets lost in the sterile environment of the school.” But on the other hand, he reports that “every opportunity I’ve had in Boston musically has been connected to Berklee.” The schools provide a network, a collection of students, professors, and alumni who live and work in community and can come together to make music.
The same can be said about Allston, a neighborhood well-known as a hotspot for up-and-coming musicians since the ‘Rock City’ days of the 1960s. Basement shows teeming with young people fresh out of school have been a vibrant segment of Allston-Brighton culture for decades. However, the closures of small venues and rapidly rising rents threaten that community. As Allston-Brighton becomes a vessel for corporate investment, the neighborhood risks losing its characteristic youthful and creative identities.
“Right now, Boston is experiencing a resurgence of megavenues, but it’s important not to forget the smaller venues,” Molnar declares. The addition of spaces like Roadrunner and festivals like Boston Calling contribute majorly to the economy in their own ways, but like any ecosystem, Allston’s music scene needs balance. As the community teeters on the border between schools and streets, between corporate megavenues and locally-run dives, volunteer-run venues like Herter Park and blossoming festivals like Charles River Jazz are saving graces.
Find more information about the 2022 Charles River Jazz on July 10, 2022 Festival on the ArtsBoston Calendar. Admission is free and there is plenty of free parking.