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The piano man

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 leonard.​brown@​gmail.​com or 508–877-7605.

by Greg St. Martin

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