Photo of Al Vega

Al Vega, ca. 1974

The name of pianist and arranger Al Vega is a familiar one to many Boston jazz fans. He acquired many listeners over his 69 years as a professional musician, from 1938 to 1942, and then from 1946 until his death in 2011. (He served in the army 1942-1946.) That covers the tenures of 9 Boston mayors, 13 U.S. presidents, and 24 Red Sox managers. That’s a lot of coming and going.

Al Vega (born Aram Vagramian) was born in Worcester on June 22, 1921, and raised in Chelsea. He was one of the young musicians who advanced quickly during the war years as replacements for army-bound older musicians. Vega frequently substituted in the name bands, and joined in  the Ken Club jam sessions. There he played alongside Sidney Bechet, Red Allen, and Jo Jones. Then Vega, too, went into the service.

Jazz jobs weren’t abundant after the war, and Vega worked in local dance bands while completing his studies at the New England Conservatory. Some of those bandleaders were George Graham, Ruby Newman, and Syd Ross. Vega also studied with the illustrious Margaret Chaloff a bit later.

In 1950, Vega caught on as the intermission pianist at the Hi-Hat. That expanded into leading the house trio, and he had a memorable one, with bassist Jack Lawlor and drummer Jimmy Zitano. Vega had some commercial appeal, and was the first Bostonian to record for Prestige, in October 1951. Those were 78s released on the Prestige and New Jazz labels. Prestige deemed only one other Bostonian as investment-worthy as Vega then, and that was Charlie Mariano.
Vega recorded a full album on January 26, at the Ace Recording Studio, with Jack Lawlor and Jimmy Zitano. The Al Vega Trio was released as a 10-inch LP, Prestige 152. Charlie Mariano’s group recorded at Ace the next day. The Charlie Mariano Boston All-Stars was released as Prestige LP 153.

Al Vega Trio

Al Vega Trio, Prestige LP 152

Drummer Zitano was soon to leave Vega’s group to go with Serge Chaloff and then Herb Pomeroy. Lawlor was quite active among the modernists in early 1950s Boston, but not much is known about him. He toured with Chet Baker in 1955 (Metronome reviewed a Baker Quartet concert at Carnegie Hall that spring, with Lawlor aboard), and after that he’s absent from the scene. I read he died at age 35, but I haven’t been able to verify it.

In the early fifties at the Hi-Hat, Vega sat in or played with the best players in modern jazz, and appeared regularly on Symphony Sid’s radio broadcasts. That, together with the Prestige recordings, started talk that Vega should go on the road to seek national recognition. But he said no. He wanted to stay with his family.

Vega thus closed a door, and when the Hi-Hat job ended in 1953, he became a local jazz vagabond, sometimes as a single but more often with a trio, moving from room to room. His drummers included Joe Locatelli, Johnny Rae, and Sonny Taclof. His bassists included Rosemary Starret and Joe DeWeese. In 1957-58, he assembled perhaps his best trio, with bassist Alex Cirin and drummer Alan Dawson. This group recorded the All By Al album, released on the Cupid label (CULP 500) in 1958.

But Vega was only getting started in 1958. Over the next 50 years, dozens of Boston-area rooms hung out the “All Vega Trio Nightly” sign for some number of weeks or months or even years. There were far more of those than there were of even Red Sox managers.

Vega just kept working, working, working, year after year and room after room. In fact, he had a gig at Scullers the night of his 90th birthday, in 2011. You could hear the evidence of Erroll Garner and George Shearing in his playing that night just as you could have heard it sixty years before at the Hi-Hat. It worked for him. People liked it. He didn’t have to change it.

To the music. Although Mariano’s Prestige LP has been reissued numerous times, the Vega LP never has, and today it is rather scarce. But here’s something from my YouTube channel, Al’s own tune, “Very Vega.”

Vega had a long-running Sunday night gig at Lucky’s in Boston, and here is a short video captured there in 2010 when Al was 89, a snippet of “Green Dolphin Street:”