Top of the Hub was one of the very rare places in the country where ordinary folks would bump into jazz every night. Those days are now over.
By Bob Nieske
In light of the changes taking place at the Top of the Hub (TOH)—the end of live jazz in the restaurant at the top of the Prudential Center—I’ve been asked to write a little something.
The TOH turned 50 years old in 2015. For all but about a year in the ’80s it has been a jazz room. Pianist Ray Santisi and drummer Harvey Simons (sorry I can’t remember the bassist’s name, George?) were there at the beginning for close to 20 years, and then vocalist Maggie Galloway took over in the mid-’80s. There was a year in the ’80s when they turned it into a disco, but abandoned the idea because clean up was too much trouble.
Until about a year ago the general manager was Raphael Oliver. Raphael’s idea was to have the jazz music as a service to the patrons. He was not interested in having people come up specifically to listen to the music but wanted the music to be there to provide a classy atmosphere. He saw the music as a gift to the patrons. When the economy tanked in 2009 he could have dropped the seven-night-a-week jazz policy to save money but chose to keep it going.
We did take a pay cut but still made about what the union would pay, more or less.
It was a better situation for us that the venue didn’t expect us to bring folks in. We didn’t have that pressure and were able to play the best music we could for the folks who were there. The GM told me he actually didn’t want our fans to come up because they were generally poor (my word) and didn’t spend much, but they hung around and took up space. Jazz fans are intelligent, intense, and patient Listeners, with a capital L. Not casual background music party folks. The old joke, “How do you end up a millionaire in jazz?, Start with two million” is appropriate. The Hub was doing well financially and could support maintaining a jazz room. And they did, up until now.
I started playing at the Hub with Maggie Galloway in 1993. There were different music schedules over the years which eventually solidified into jazz seven nights a week with a few regular bands alternating weeks or months. One group would play Tuesday through Saturday, and one group would take Sunday and Monday.
At the beginning, it was a tux gig for the musicians and a coat-and-tie dress code for the patrons. The band has since gone to jacket with optional tie and patrons can wear anything. It’s not uncommon to see folks in shorts and flip flops next to folks in fancy evening attire. The no-hats-for-the-gents policy is even fading. About a decade ago, they renovated and for the first time installed TV sets at the bar.
I took my job very seriously as the booker/musical director, though I didn’t have a whole lot of power. The GM had a favorite group here or there over the years who I was told to hire, but they were good and that was fine. The fill-in bands and Sunday/Monday groups were up to me.
Most people will never hear jazz. It’s hard to find on the radio and very few venues offer it. Unlike pop music, which you can’t avoid, one doesn’t generally bump into jazz by accident in their daily travels. You have to seek it out. The Hub was one of the very rare places in the country where ordinary folks (meaning people who were just out to see the sights without having a music agenda) would bump into jazz every night. I figured that since most folks haven’t heard much, if any, jazz, and wouldn’t know good from less good, that I had a responsibility to make sure the music was the best it could be. If someone who doesn’t know hears a mediocre band they are told is a jazz band, they may just think they don’t like jazz. The bands were good.
It was interesting that we noticed local folks didn’t seem to pay much attention to the music. I’d say 80% of the time if folks were really applauding they were from out of town. Midwest or California people frequently sat in disbelief at the people who paid no attention to us. I don’t know what that says about Boston, if it says anything at all.
We did notice that it often felt like people would think of us as background music, which I have no problem with, or they would think of us as not actually playing instruments. Like we were not real. It was very common for someone to actually walk up on stage while we were playing and ask for a request, not waiting for us to finish the tune. One night someone came up and walked past Maggie while she was singing and came to me at the back of the stage to ask about some tune. I think maybe they thought of us as a hologram projected from an ipod. People are so used to talking over their portable music that when they see real people playing they may not realize they are real.
Most people don’t actively listen. They don’t have to.
(Here comes the old fart routine…) When I was young…we didn’t have portable anything. We had a stereo that was fixed in one room. If you wanted to listen, you went into the room and sat and listened. It was an event. If you believe in supply and demand, you must believe that music is of less value now because we can have it anywhere at any time, and most people don’t want to pay for it.
Peter, the new GM said he wants to go in a different direction and go with something more contemporary. He’s bringing in an agent from Las Vegas and said he wants young attractive women singers singing contemporary music. (I thought maybe we could play more contemporary like free jazz or Stockhausen, but that’s not what he means.)
I recently started reading a book by Susan Cain called Quiet, subtitled “The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.” It begins by talking about self-help icon Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) and his influence in changing American culture from one of ‘character’ to one of ‘personality.’ The fundamental shift is from the internal to the external. From honor, manners, and integrity to a demand for the attractive, charismatic, and energetic.
Maybe the Hub’s abandoning the dress code and adding televisions and going contemporary is part of the shift that Cain is talking about.
I don’t know that jazz music is any better than any other music. I know that it represents a music with a very high level of expressiveness, intellectual complexity, and instrumental virtuosity, equal in it’s own ways to Western “classical” music. This is where my ignorance will get me into trouble and where I’ll stop comparing since there are so many musics I know nothing or very little about and that must have similar levels of complexity and virtuosity and expressiveness. I don’t know that the music that gets played at the Hub now will be inferior to what I did. We will just have to see.
I do know that there are so very few places to hear (and play) high-quality jazz music that this is a blow to the musicians who play jazz in the area, and maybe more of a shame that this great, now underground, music will be heard by fewer “ordinary” folks.
I started playing professionally at 16 in 1971 ,and my first steady gig was with a jazz quartet, which had a two week stint at the Paramount Café in Springfield, MA. After two weeks we were fired and replaced by a banjo player and tap dancer. If it were people like Gregory Hines and Bela Fleck, I wouldn’t have minded. I shouldn’t be too quick to assume or judge, maybe they were great. Maybe the young women singing contemporary tunes now at the Hub will be as well.