by Anthony Harrison
Boston’s House of Jazz & Blues is an old-school jazz club. And it isn’t.
The best booze still flows. The tiny tables remain. But the lighting encases you in pearl instead of drowsy, smoky sepia. Jars of peppermints line the bar. Lounge areas furnished with comfy leather couches replace the tight quarters of the mind’s nostalgic eye. And the stage, which in clubs of the past shoved a sextet around a single microphone to make room for the drum kit, could feasibly hold a small jazz orchestra.
The music also represents their acknowledged change of the guard. On a recent Friday night at Boston’s, R&B artist Vanessa Ferguson owned the night.
Ferguson possesses some impressive pipes. She melds the velvety mezzo of Mary J. Blige and the impromptu genius of Sarah Vaughan.
While one could easily pigeonhole Ferguson as a neo-soul singer — granted, she’s got plenty of soul — she showed off some old-school bandleader sensibilities.
During her first set, Ferguson called solos to her band members.
“Gimme a little somethin’ on keyboard,” Ferguson told pianist Tirrell Wright. Wright easily slid into a twinkly improvisation on his Rhodes.
Ferguson then said, “Teddy, can you give me a little somethin’ on the bass?” Teddy Anthony played a bumping, understated break on his Fender Jazz.
“Last but not least, my old college buddy — we got Q on the drums,” Ferguson stated. Larry Q. Draughn Jr. suddenly channeled Max Roach in his melodic invention on a technically toneless instrument.
An earlier solo came from Ferguson’s vocal partner, R’mone Entonio, who provided virtuosic harmonies throughout both of Ferguson’s sets.
Before Ferguson took the stage, as a warm-up for himself, the band and the audience, Entonio belted George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” a version unlike any I’d heard, both respectful of the song’s blues-aria roots and powerfully his own. Entonio astounded the whole club.
After he finished, someone testified, “I just had a light stroke.”
Who would’ve thought “Summertime” could be so gloriously interpreted in the middle of December?
That seems to be the point of Boston’s: delivering the unexpected.
“I wanted to create something different,” owner Mike Boston said, “a different vibe than what everyone’s used to.”
Like jazz itself, Boston’s can claim many different homes. Boston’s first location on Edgeworth Street — affectionately called “Baby Boston’s” — initially specialized in straight-ahead jazz, but the club’s popularity outpaced interest in jazz alone.
“We had to find a style to suit everybody,” Boston said.
Following suit, Boston’s started booking R&B and soul acts.
As their clientele increased, the club upsized to the former location of Solaris and Summit Station on Summit Avenue across from the Greensboro Cultural Arts Center downtown. When plans for the Tanger Center for the Performing Arts arose, Boston’s uprooted again, and they settled on Arnold Street off East Bessemer Avenue, a short walk away from the NC A&T University campus.
While both Boston and General Manager Sherry Jackson fondly remember Baby Boston’s — “You could pack so many people in there and just party,” Jackson grinned — the new location seems a perfect fit.
Despite all the changes, Boston’s still observes its jazz mission. On Sunday evenings in the spring and summer, they host Sunset Jazz on their outdoor patio, the South Beach Lounge — swanked to the max with an outdoor bar, grottos and even a beach volleyball court.
In its unique way, Boston’s reboots the jazz club for the 21st Century. They celebrate the old and the new, the familiar and the spontaneous.
Embodying the latter point, a bartender named Dax casually asked what I was doing for the holidays while I stood at the bar. I told him I’m going up to New York City for the week.
“You staying through New Year’s?” he asked.
“No, I’m coming back on Christmas Day…which might wind up being insane.”
Dax laughed heartily.
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said, still chuckling. “Sometimes, you just gotta mix it up.”