Alain Pacowski and Kurtis Rivers are veterans of the Boston jazz scene who made a home for themselves at the Ramsay/Toy VFW Post on Woodrow Avenue in Dorchester.
The musical duo, a guitarist and saxophonist who bonded during late-night jam sessions at Wally’s, the legendary South End club, were at the center of what Dot Jazz Series curator Mark Redmond considered to be Dorchester’s best-kept secret: an eight -year-long residency at the VFW Post that ended in 2015.
This week (Thurs., May 9 at 7:30 p.m.), they’ll reunite for the finale of the 2018-2019 Dot Jazz Series at All Saints’ Peabody Hall as part of a quintet that will feature pianist David Harewood, drummer Miki Matsuki, and bassist Paul Dilley, who formed the core rhythm section in the VFW band.
Pacowski and Rivers can talk about jazz for hours. Between them, the ex-bandmates possess an encyclopedic knowledge of its history.
Pacowski, who grew up on the southwest coast of France, was immersed in the music from a young age, thanks to his father, and he quickly became a diligent scholar, reading and listening chronologically through the eras of Dixieland, big band, swing, and bebop.
Rivers, a native of South Carolina, was enraptured by the sound of John Coltrane’s horn as a youngster and worked his way backward from there.
Later, when the two of them were students at the Berklee School of Music, they both felt a magnetic pull to Wally’s Café, a place steeped in history itself. At a coffee shop in Jamaica Plain last week, they traded stories about the big names that once frequented the Boston jazz mecca.
“It really should be a monument,” said Rivers of the South End club. “So many people have played there. Erroll Garner, Red Garland …” – “Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman,” Pacowski interjected – as they rattled off a dozen more names.
“Wally was serious about the music,” Rivers said of the original founder, Joseph “Wally” Walcott, who passed away in 1998. He recounted occasions when Walcott kicked out a drummer for playing too loud, and even threatened Rivers himself one night for being too liberal with the genre.
“He almost threw me out one day! For playing some rock and roll. I looked up and saw him holding a stick: ‘You ain’t playin’ that up in here! Uh-uh!’”
Despite that incident, Rivers headed up the house band at Wally’s for years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, often with Pacowski on guitar. They said that back then, the crowd at Wally’s was older and more static than the chatty student demographic currently found at the club.
“There used to be a faithful crowd there every night,” said Pacowski. “It was a community,” agreed Rivers.
For them, the people they play to are just as important as the people they play alongside.
“Music is a delicate organism,” explained Pacowski, noting the natural chemistry that developed after playing at the VFW post every Sunday night for nearly a decade. “I’ve always loved to play with Kurtis. We’ve played together for so long that there’s a level of musical trust that makes it comfortable and fun to play with him...when you’re playing with musicians regularly, you get to know each other, the vibe, the voicings they tend to choose, you get familiar with what they’ll do next. It’s a very personal relationship.
“The band we had at the Ramsay post, as a band it was getting better and better. When you play the same place, there are all kinds of nuance that you could never get otherwise.”
For Pacowski, the weekly gig reminded him of the unique partnership that old-time jazz clubs would have with their patrons.
“In the old days, in the ‘50s, people stayed in the club for a really long time. There was a totally different relationship to playing because the same people played there locally every week. And, so, there was this incredible relationship between the audience and the band that created better music because there was trust, and you were comfortable on stage.”
Nowadays, that special relationship is difficult to replicate and even harder to find. After their regular VFW gig came to a close, Pacowski and Rivers struggled to find a venue with the same magic; it was the end of an era, and nobody in the neighborhood took up the torch.
According to Rivers, you can’t find another spot like the Ramsay/Toy VFW with a weekly jazz residency in Dorchester. “There aren’t any left,” he said.
In their absence, the Dot Jazz Series has offered a welcome musical revival, said Pacowski. He lauded founder Mark Redmond for his work with Greater Ashmont Main Streets to establish the bi-monthly music series based at All Saints church.
“What he’s doing is amazing; he provided not only the opportunity for people to listen to live music but also for local live musicians to play. In Boston, the clubs like Wally’s and Scullers are great, but it’s also nice to have a local scene to support.”
In helping to keep jazz alive in Dorchester, the series plays a vital role, according to Pacowski and Rivers, who are dismayed by how little most people know about the music, which Pacowski considers to be “the American art.”
“When I first came here, I was absolutely sure that everyone knew about jazz,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that no one knows about the music here.”
Yet, Pacowski remains optimistic.
“There’s hope,” he said. “I’m not worried about jazz...it’s still the music of the future.”
The Kurtis Rivers/Alain Pacowski Quintet will perform Thursday, May 9 at 7:30 p.m. in Peabody Hall at the Parish of All Saints in Ashmont. Tickets cost $15 and are available for purchase online at dotjazz.org or at the door. Tickets include dessert and soft drinks, and wine will be available for purchase. Doors at 7.