Saturday, May 4, 2013

Al Vega from Armenian Worcester

By Chet Williamson

He led a charmed life. Although most of his time was spent in the Boston area, the charismatic pianist Al Vega was born in Worcester.

His career spanned nearly 70 years and he performed with the finest musicians at the best venues in New England.

At the time of his death in 2011 at the age of 90, radio personality Ron Della Chiesa told the Associated Press that Vega was “one of the most beloved musicians in the history of the city."

His real name was Aram Vagramian. In an interview a few years before his death he told me, “I’m Armenian. Worcester is loaded with Armenians. My mother was from Bularia. My father was from Armenia. They probably came to Worcester because it was a Mecca for Armenians. They knew some people there from the old country.”

His father was an artist and a sign painter. “He used the name Vega;   that’s how I got the name. In the 1930s and ‘40s you didn’t want to put an Arabic name on your orchestra. They didn’t go for ethnic names and it was a little too long to put on the marquee,” the pianist said.

The Vagramian family did not stay in Worcester long. “I stayed there something like three-and-a-half years,” Vega said. “Then the family moved to Lynn. The most recent time I was in Worcester was at the Centrum. I played the VIP party for Frank Sinatra.” (His family later moved to Chelsea.)

Vega started playing the piano at the age of 5 years-old. “My mother was a real believer in studying,” he said. “She made me practice an hour a day. I wanted to play ball. I did classical right through high school.”

In high school Vega also started playing in dance bands. “Just about every weekend we’d go out and play big ballrooms,” he said. “We’d play Sun Valley near Worcester. I’d get a call from Cy Shribman -- you know the guy who did the Glenn Miller movie. He’d call up and say, ‘Glenn Miller’s bus broke or Count Basie can’t make it, so get the band together.’”

According to Della Chiesa, Vega, joined a big band that included, “other local musicians like Joe MacDonald, Al Natale and Varty Haroutunian. His piano idol at the time was Count Basie who performed frequently in the Boston area.”

Also during his teen years, Vega began making the rounds at all of the local jazz jams. One of the more popular was held at the Ken Club.

Richard Vacca documented the scene in his book, The Boston Jazz Chronicles; Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1837-1962.

“The local musicians always showed up on Sundays, hoping for a chance to sit in with the stars. With the supply of musicians depleted by the draft, even a handful of high school musicians got their chance.

“Among them was pianist Al Vega: ‘The first time I sat in at the Ken was with J.C. Higginbotham from Red Allen’s band, and Jo Jones was on drums because Basie was across the street at the Metropolitan Theater. I look up and I see Jo Jones, and I look to one side and I see Red Allen, and I look theother way and I see J.C. Higginbotham, so I put my head down and played and hoped I’d make it. And I did pretty well, so every week I’d end up playing a few numbers. I’d hear “Body and Soul” one week and I’d go home and practice it. I’d get back there, and they’d ask what do you want to play and I’d say Body and Soul.”

Vega graduated from Chelsea High School in 1939 and before his musical life completely consumed him, he spent a year studying engineering at Northeastern University. He also attended New England Conservatory and the Schillinger House.
Della Chiesa noted that, “after serving in the Army during World War II, Al married and returned home where he formed the first of his many trios.”

Following his military service, Vega formed a quintet with saxophonist Ted Goddard and played with the George Graham orchestra. “When money was tight and jobs were few,” Vacca wrote, “they worked society dates for Ruby Newman. In 1949, Vega joined the dance band of Syd Ross and began teaching at Schillinger House. Then came the Hi-Hat.”

Berklee College of Music founder Lawrence Berk teaching the Schillinger Method

Vega was the intermission pianist at the fabled club. There, he got to play with the likes of Charlie Parker. In an interview with Vacca, Vega recalled a typical night at the venue: “First I’d play a few tunes, then the headliner’s bass player would sit in for a few more – some of them were Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford, and George Duvivier – and then the headliner would take over. I’d play 20 minutes and the headliner would play 40.

“When Bird came in, though, he only wanted to play 30-minute sets, and that’s how I got my trio in there, I put together a trio with Frank Gallagher and Jimmy Zitano and we’d play 30 minutes and Bird would play 30. Other guys, I’d play the 40 minutes, if somebody didn’t show up or didn’t want play the last set.”

Oscar Pettiford

Playing at the Hi-Hat put Vega at the hub of Boston’s jazz scene where he comfortably resided for the duration of his career. Fortunately, it is well documented.

Speaking of his standing in chronicles of the city’s jazz lore, Vacca put it this way: “Al Vega achieved legendary status in Boston. In a career spanning almost seven decades, the pianist played with every bassist and every drummer, backed every singer, and worked every room.” See below for resources.

Continuing with our conversation of all things Worcester, Vega recalled playing the El Morocco. “I remember the piano was on the outside, but the weather wasn’t too good, so we went inside. We had dinner with the Aboodys [the restaurant’s original owners]. Of course, I knew Emil Haddad.”

Vega also made mention of his stint at the Maridor in Framingham. “It was a beautiful club,” he said. “I worked [there] for five years.  So my name was well known in that area. That was 1965 to ’70. It was right on Rte. 9. By this time we had the Mass Pike. We did six nights a week. We were doing swing and jazz and we had a singer. We had Mae Arnette. She was great. She’d do a week and some others from Worcester.

“The Carousel Theater was going then. I’d look up and I’d see Tony Bennett. Their show would break around 9:30-10 and they’d come in every night. Monticello’s [another popular Rt. 9 showcase in Framingham] was going and people like Cab Calloway would come in to see us after their show. So the room was like Hollywood. Emil was working down the street at the Meadows.

When asked what kept him going in the music, without stopping to think Vega answered, “The secret is to enjoy what you do.”

Al Vega 

DOB: June 22, 1921
DOD: December 2, 2011

*Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Thank you. Please see other features at


No comments:

Post a Comment