The local folk music community holds dear the memory of the coffeehouse located at 47 Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge, between 1958 and 1963. Everybody played there, and it was the subject of a well-regarded documentary film in 2012. They were good days, to be sure. The oft-told tale of folk music at 47 Mount Auburn, aka Club 47, sometimes includes an admission that “oh, by the way, it started as a jazz club.” Sometimes it doesn’t. Let us review.
On January 6, 1958, Paula Kelley and Joyce Kalina, two recent Brandeis graduates, opened a coffeehouse at 47 Mount Auburn St. They promised music: the trio of pianist Steve Kuhn on weekends, and guitarist Rudi Vanelli on weeknights.
As Kelley told the Harvard Crimson, the pair opened the coffeehouse, which they called Mount Auburn 47, because “things were pretty dull” in Cambridge. Getting it all together wasn’t easy. “Our friends told us we were complete fools to try. It was difficult at first to convince solid, middle-class Americans that a new artistic endeavor could also be a financial success, but finally we got the backing we needed.” They rented a storefront and learned how to brew coffee from an Italian who’d lived in the mideast. He was identified only as “a poet, artist, and recluse.”
Kelley and Kalina’s musical direction pointed toward jazz. Said Kelley, “It is very popular with students, and we want to provide a place where they can hear good experimental jazz.” We might not think of Kuhn as “experimental,” but he was suitably modern, and he drew an appreciative crowd.
Music by Kuhn, Neves, Rivers
Steve Kuhn, then a junior at Harvard, was already turning heads on the local jazz scene. He’d been gigging around Boston since age 13. He sat in at Storyville when he was a Newton High School student in 1954, prompting George Wein to call him “a second Leonard Bernstein.” His working trio at the coffeehouse included bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Arnie Wise. Roger Kellaway subbed for Israels sometimes. (Israels wrote about Wise and those days on the Such Sweet Thunder blog.)
Those who knew him said guitarist Rudi Vannelli was a free spirit who didn’t show much interest in building a career. He had one anyway. He was mostly self-taught, although he got to know Segovia and took lessons from the master when he passed through town. His repertoire mixed classics with jazz and pop, and he worked in good rooms in the 1950s, including Storyville and the Darbury Room. He was a good fit for the coffeehouses, too, and was a regular at the Turk’s Head on Charles St. Vanelli made one record, Maestro of the Guitar (Verve MG-V-2038), in 1956. He died at the young age of 42 in 1961, from an apparent heart attack.
So all this was great fun, but the police busted “the girls” for not having the proper entertainment license. It’s a good thing they were only serving coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, because if they’d had a liquor license, they surely would have lost it. Kelley and Kalina then took the club private, sold memberships for a dollar, and changed the name to the Club Mount Auburn 47. Over time people shortened it to Club 47.
The second notable band resident at Club 47 was the Paul Neves Trio, with Paul on piano, his brother John Neves on bass, and Alan Dawson on drums and vibes. They swung in the fashion of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The Neves brothers left by mid-1960, replaced by Leroy Fallana on piano and Phil Morrison on bass. Bill Fitch stopped by sometimes with his conga drums.
Tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers headed up another great coffeehouse working group on his nights off from the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra. With Rivers were pianist Hal Galper, drummer Tony Williams, and Phil Morrison or Henry Grimes on bass. Now that band was experimental! Kelley must have been pleased. But jazz was already on the decline at Club 47 as folk music boomed, and I’m guessing it ended sometime in 1961.
Bigger changes were coming to the coffeehouse itself, though. Kalina (now Joyce Chopra) moved on, embarking on a fifty-year career in film. She’s directed dozens of documentaries, feature films, and made-for-television movies. The coffeehouse became a non-profit venture, with a board of directors… and at some point they eased Paula Kelley out of her own club. (Maybe she wanted to keep booking jazz.) And by 1963, Club 47 had a bad case of landlady trouble, which led to their moving to new digs on Palmer Street.
Comeback and Conclusion
Jazz made a comeback at Club 47 in late 1965, sharing time on an eclectic schedule with folk, blues, and a bit of rock. From October 1965 to February 1966, some old friends were often back on the bandstand: Sam Rivers, Hal Galper, and Phil Morrison, with drummer Steve Ellington filling out the quartet. This was shortly before Rivers recorded his album A New Conception (Blue Note BLP 4249), with Galper and Ellington on the date. Perhaps they played that music for the Club 47 audience.
Among other jazz groups appearing in the late sixties were those of Ken McIntyre, George Benson, Gary Burton, and Philadelphia saxophonist D.B. Shrier. Mose Allison, with his go-to drummer Alan Dawson, was a Club 47 favorite.
Sadly, this musical meeting place shuttered in early 1968. The club was done in by debt, and by the realization that its income simply couldn’t cover its expenses. Club 47 closed on April 27, 1968. Then came a non-musical interlude, as Senator Gene McCarthy’s campaign headquarters occupied the space during his bid for the presidency. Then Club Passim opened in 1969, and they’re still presenting music in January 2023. But they’ve never presented anything that sounds like Kelley and Kalina’s experimental jazz.