Leonard Brown, an associate professor of music and African American studies at Northeastern University, compares 90-year-old jazz pianist Al Vega to Bud Powell, who critics often call “the father of bebop piano.”
“Al has incredible command of the instrument in terms of phrasing, key signatures and tempo,” Brown says. “He can play as slow as slow or as fast as fast.”
The saxophonist stuck up a friendship with the pianist at the John Coltrane Memorial Concert at Northeastern some 10 years ago. The 34th annual John Coltrane concert will be held in Blackman Auditorium this Saturday, Oct. 22.
In celebration of Vega’s 90th birthday party in June, Brown released a self-published biography of his friend titled “Boston’s Jazz Legend: The Al Vega Story.”
To gather material for the book, the duo spent countless afternoons at the Green Street Grill in Cambridge rapping about the jazz star’s illustrious career in Boston.
In his teens, Vega performed with jazz legends Sidney Bechet and Henry James “Red” Allen. In the 1940s and 50s, he played with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker at famous nightclubs in the city, including the Hi-Hat and Storyville.
“It was nice to remember those moments by reading the book,” Vega says. “I read it until I fell asleep and then finished it the next day.”
In the late 50s, Vega — a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Europe at the turn of the 20th century — became part of the first racially integrated jazz trio in Boston, which featured legendary drummer Alan Dawson.
Brown was fascinated by Vega’s starring role in the city’s jazz scene. As he puts it, “It speaks to the power of music to transcend and resonate with people from all around the world.”
For his part, Vega can still quiet a crowd by playing any number of pop, jazz or show tunes. You can find him behind the keys at Antonia’s in Revere or at Lucky’s Lounge in Boston.
“I enjoy playing and improvising,” Vega says. “Even if there are only two or three people listening, I’m able to work off their energy.”
Brown, who says Vega “respects the music and gives you all he has every time he plays,” admires his friend for his unique ability to nurture his students.
Vega has taught piano and managed a Babe Ruth league baseball club in Everett for the last 50 years. “You can’t be a good musician or a good baseball player without learning the fundamentals, and Al has tremendous patience to teach both,” Brown says.
To purchase a copy of “Boston’s Jazz Legend: The Al Vega Story,” contact Leonard Brown at email@example.com or 508–877-7605.
– by Greg St. Martin