Nonprofit JazzBoston Promotes Key Urban Music Scene

In a photograph taken in front of Wally’s Cafe during August 2009, a group of about 100 people-young and old-shout at the viewer from in front of the brick building.

According to Pauline Bilsky, who stood at the heart of the exuberant crowd in a white shirt, they are all shouting, “What’s your jazz?”

Bilsky, who has been the executive director of the nonprofit organization JazzBoston since its founding eight years ago, said that the photograph cannot possibly capture the entirety of the city’s jazz community, but it is the first group portrait of its kind-it conveys, better than words, JazzBoston’s dedication to connecting and promoting Boston’s jazz scene.

Originally from New York, Bilsky was formerly a trustee of the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her love of jazz grew out of an unexpected friendship.

She met jazz musician Henry Threadgill through friends who knew him from Chicago-he needed a place to hold a reception after one of his performances, and Bilsky offered her loft, athough she wanted to meet him first and hear his music.

“It changed my life because he introduced me to the whole downtown music scene and a whole different kind of jazz, and he’s still one of my closest friends,” Bilsky said, who worked as Threadgill’s manager from 1990 to 1997. “From then on, jazz was just a very important part of my life.”

When Bilsky decided to move to Boston, the beginnings of what would become JazzBoston were already being put into motion by Bob Young, who had been a Boston Herald music critic for many years. According to Bilsky, Young was a major jazz fan, but he felt that the city’s jazz community was too fragmented, and that it would only grow if its members worked together.

Back in New York, Bilsky heard news of the blossoming organization from a musician who asked her if she wanted to get involved. Bilsky did not hesitate. She started attending meetings before she even completed her move to Boston, and, before she knew it, she was executive director-what Bilsky called a “daunting” task.

Although she herself is not a musician, Bilsky knew a fair amount about the jazz scene from her experience in New York. Still, she lacked knowledge about the key players in Boston’s jazz community. Eight years later, Bilsky finds herself introducing fellow members of the jazz community who have lived in the area much longer than she has.

“The first thing we did when we started was call a meeting of everyone we knew in the jazz community,” Bilsky said. They came out of that meeting with their first and most ambitious objective-bring back Jazz Week. After a 25-year hiatus, the 10-day celebration of Boston’s jazz scene returned to Boston in 2007. Jazz Week will kick off this year on April 21, the day of the Boston Marathon, and will continue until International Jazz Day on April 30.

Plans are currently in the works for a live radio broadcast of a jazz marathon, in which musicians will play until the last runner of the Boston Marathon crosses the finish line.

Bilsky said that JazzBoston hopes Jazz Week will extend the celebratory nature of the Marathon, and that tourists visiting for the famous race will increase the length of their stay to appreciate a key component of Boston’s culture.

“A lot of cities have classical orchestras, and a lot of cities have ballet and opera companies-Boston’s clearly are among the very best in the world-but very few cities are great, year-round jazz cities, and that is really a distinctive feature of Boston’s cultural life,” Bilsky said.

To increase the prominence of Boston’s jazz community, JazzBoston created an iPhone app called JazzBird, in part to fill the gap left when WGBH cut back its jazz programming. Jazz lovers can use the app to listen to jazz radio shows from around the globe-Boston-based jazz shows, however, are specially marked with a B.

According to Bilsky, there are at least 35 jazz venues in the city and many more throughout greater Boston. Although Bilsky acknowledged that many musicians move to New York to try and make it big, she insisted that one does not need to leave Boston to find a place on the world stage. She cited Danilo Perez, a famous Panamanian jazz musician who keeps his primary residence in Boston, and Jason Palmer, a member of JazzBoston’s board, as key examples of musicians who have found success while remaining in Boston.

Palmer, who teaches at the Berklee College of Music, said that Boston’s identity as an education hub was one factor that kept him in the city. He frequently plays jazz at Wally’s Cafe when he’s in town, but also performs frequently in New York. Although he said that there are more music venues in New York, he said that he does not believe the pay scale is much better there than in Boston, and that both cities need to learn the same lessons-they need to promote the value of music, especially where it can bring people together from different backgrounds.

JazzBoston tried to bring that message to the transition team of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, WCAS ’09, in a meeting that the team dedicated to Boston’s arts community on Jan. 25.

“The meeting was good, and I’m very optimistic and hopeful that Mayor Walsh really is going to make arts and culture a priority,” Bilsky said, adding that jazz can help the mayor reach his goal of creating a united Boston because of its powers to bridge cultural and racial divides.

Indeed, Bilsky said that the board members of JazzBoston tend to reach a consensus on even some of the more difficult issues faced by the group during meetings around a table in her home.

JazzBoston is an all-volunteer organization, and Bilsky knows that the board members have busy schedules, so she tries to use their time efficiently. Still, she emphasized that the meetings are anything but stuffy: “It’s still jazz, you know,” she said.


February 6, 2014