Photo of Varty Haroutunian playing saxophone

Varty Haroutunian at the Stable, 1959

In early 1966, Varty Haroutunian, manager of the Jazz Workshop on Boylston Street, saw the writing on the wall. It said, “grow or close.” The Workshop seated 175, and Haroutunian believed that given the changing economics of the music business, the club couldn’t make it without more revenue. For that, he needed more seats, and his pursuit of them led to the opening of Varty’s Jazz Room.

Varty Haroutunian is a familiar figure in these blog posts (here and here), and an important character in The Boston Jazz Chronicles. He was the Jazz Workshop’s booker as well as its first manager, and for three years the music was consistently of high quality. There were many high points, from the Grand Opening with Stan Getz, to booking artists who otherwise went unheard in Boston (Shirley Horn, Bobby Timmons, Lennie Tristano), to multiple visits by John Coltrane’s Quartet. And Varty filled out his schedule with the best of the local jazzmen—Pomeroy, Mariano, Mosher, Lennie Johnson.

A rent increase in early 1966 brought the revenue issue into sharper focus. Then in June clubowner Harold Buchhalter sold the Jazz Workshop to Tony Mauriello, Fred Taylor, and Peter Lane—MTL, Inc. They were already managing Paul’s Mall, another Buchhalter property next door, and Buchhalter sold MTL both clubs. However, the understanding was that Haroutunian could manage the Workshop as long as he wanted the job.

On to the Hotel Bradford

Working for MTL wasn’t what Haroutunian had in mind, though, and he planned to move the Jazz Workshop to a new location. He leased the 300-seat room on the lower level of the Hotel Bradford (now the Courtyard Boston Downtown), on Tremont Street in the Theatre District.

This was a room with a history, not all of it promising. It was the Carousel in the 1950s. Al Taxier, a longtime Boston nightclub man, managed that room, and he tried some jazz, but with only limited success. Then came Storyville. The Bradford housed the third location of Storyville in 1960-61, managed by hotel owner Ralph Snider with the support of George Wein. Despite Storyville’s parade of top talent, the club didn’t make it to Christmas in its second season. Then the room sat vacant until Haroutunian rented it.

Ad for Anita O'Day at Varty's Jazz Room

Ad for Anita O’Day at Varty’s Jazz Room, September 1966

Things went sideways from the start. Haroutunian intended to take the name “Jazz Workshop” to the Bradford, and initially advertised it that way. After a legal tussle over the use of the name, the court ruled it should stay with Buchhalter’s club. Thus was born the new name, Varty’s Jazz Room, and thus was lost the marketing advantage of an established name.

Apart from a few sound-system glitches, opening week in September was a double-bill success, with Anita O’Day backed by the Ray Santisi Trio (with bassist Tony Eira and Bob Poole, O’Day’s longtime drummer), plus trumpeter Art Farmer’s quintet. Press accounts reported O’Day to be in exceptionally fine form. The coming weeks looked promising too, with Cal Tjader, Art Blakey, and Carmen McRae among the scheduled artists. And an even bigger name preceded them.

Grappling with Garner

The club’s second week featured pianist Les McCann, another popular attraction. Then came a much-anticipated appearance by Erroll Garner, one of the biggest box-office draws in jazz. But, recalled Elsa Hart (Haroutunian), “It was a nightmare. He wanted a lot of money for those days, and even though the place was mobbed for every show and we did well at the door, whatever came in went out to pay Garner. And the piano…Varty bought a Steinway for the room, and just before Garner came in, his manager tells us he’s no longer a Steinway artist, he’s a Baldwin artist, and plays a Baldwin exclusively. So we had to get a Baldwin for Garner. I called Nicholas Van Slyck at the Longy School, and he met Varty at the club and played the piano for about ten minutes and said he’d take it, and wrote a check. We sold it for about half price, and then rented the Baldwin.”

“So Garner made a lot of money,” Hart continued, “but he only paid his sidemen $100 for the week. And he told the waitresses that he was going to tip them at the end of the week, but he never did. He stiffed the waitresses! So finally we’re sitting with Garner, writing his check, and he says, ‘Varty, now that you’re in the big time, don’t get greedy.’ I’ll never forget that.”

It only got harder. There was a good week with Ahmad Jamal in October, but artists like Horace Silver, Art Blakey, June Christy, and Bill Evans did not do well. The club drained Haroutunian’s savings as it lost money, and after the Thanksgiving weekend in November, he pulled the plug. He’d had enough. Worn out from a long 1966, and with a family to support, he decided to leave the music business. He still had a head for management, though, and it led him to a second career managing stores for the Star Market grocery chain.

Varty’s Jazz Room: What Went Wrong?

What accounts for a life so short, even by nightclub standards? Varty Haroutunian summed it up most succinctly for Boston After Dark: “Not enough people came.” But why not? Elsa Hart recalled, “That area was pretty sleazy in those days. Strip joints, peep shows. I didn’t think we’d get the jazz enthusiasts to come down there. Copley Square had a nicer atmosphere. But Varty wanted to give it a try.”

The drabness of Tremont Street and the Combat Zone places nearby weren’t the only concerns. The room itself came in for criticism. The Globe’s post-mortem referred to its “basement vastness,” and how the room was just too large. “With a crowd of 50 it seemed empty.” The paper also blamed a shortage of parking, especially on the weekends when the Theatre District was at its busiest. Some patrons even criticized the beer choices—the club could only serve the same two brands sold elsewhere in the hotel.

So Varty’s Jazz Room closed after three whirlwind months. Varty found his bigger room with almost twice as many seats at the Jazz Workshop—and it nearly ruined him. The Jazz Workshop, under the direction of Taylor and Mauriello, continued to bring good jazz to Boston for another twelve years. When they closed the Workshop and Paul’s Mall in 1978, though, they did it because they didn’t have enough seats to generate the revenue they needed to stay afloat. The nightclub business was, and is, a hard way to make a living.

To the music. Let’s not forget Varty Haroutunian was a fine tenor player, heard to advantage on Jazz in a Stable, recorded by the Jazz Workshop Quintet in 1955. In his Down Beat review, Nat Hentoff noted that “Haroutunian blows with a full sound, flowing ideas, and guts.” Here’s “Moten Swing” from that album.