Overdue Debut

Legendary Detroit jazz pianist Charles Boles releases his first CD
Photograph by Roy Ritchie

Say hello to Detroit’s newest recording artist. He’s got immeasurable talent, worlds of experience, an abiding respect for his music’s traditions, and you don’t have to wait for his national tour to see him perform. He and his three bandmates have been in concert at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe Farms every Tuesday night for nearly two years.

Oh, and he’s 81 years old.

Charles Boles, a fastidiously attired, 5-foot-2-inch package of verve and style, is more than one of the world’s great jazz pianists. He is an authentic Detroit treasure, so rare and historically significant that the DIA should be fighting to preserve him.

And with his first CD, Blue Continuum by the Charles Boles Quartet on the Detroit Music Factory label, his elegant, effortless technique finally has been captured for the ages.

“I could have put out a CD on my own,” muses Boles, who has been playing almost constantly since 1947, as he relaxes in the Dirty Dog’s green room between sets on a recent Tuesday. “But if you don’t have backing, if you don’t have somebody like Gretchen [Valade, chair of Mack Avenue Records and co-owner of the Dirty Dog] that will go and distribute your music all around the country, they can tell you to f— off. They [Detroit Music Factory] shipped our stuff all over the United States. I couldn’t have done that. I don’t know nobody in Omaha, Nebraska, or Denver, Colorado. But they do.”

Fortune smiled on Boles one Tuesday last summer when executives from Mack Avenue Records, parent label of Detroit Music Factory, joined Valade for dinner at the café and came to the same conclusion she had reached long before. “I put Charles on Detroit Music Factory for the same reason I feature him at the Dirty Dog: I think he’s amazing,” Valade says. “And I think he’s been underrated for some time by many in the business. I’m happy he finally has this opportunity. Clearly, it’s long overdue.”

Blue Continuum, recorded in just two days at Solid Sound studios in Ann Arbor, features five original compositions by Boles and four from veteran guitarist and CD co-producer Ron English. The Stevie Wonder classic “Golden Lady” (“to maybe grab some of the younger people,” Boles says) and a Valade favorite, “God Bless the Child,” are cover tunes. (And a bonus track, the nearly 10-minute meditation “Alone,” can be downloaded on iTunes.) Bassist John Dana and drummer Renell Gonsalves from Boles’ live quartet, also perform on the CD. Boles’ favorite cut, the standout instrumental “Liz,” is a tribute to his adoptive mother, a fine pianist herself.

“A CD from Charles Boles — as a leader, no less — is really something to say ‘Amen’ to,” cheers former Metro Times editor and longtime Detroit jazz chronicler W. Kim Heron. “Charles is one of our ever-fewer direct links to the heyday of bebop Detroit and those jam session tutorials at Barry Harris’ house.

“Every time he sits at the keyboard, it’s a master class in that tradition.”

And when Boles sits down to play piano at the Dirty Dog, there’s a delicious coincidence that a giant framed photo of jazz immortal Fats Waller should hang over his shoulder. For it was Waller, Liz’s cousin, who persuaded Boles to take up the piano when he was a child growing up in Detroit’s fabled Black Bottom district.

“He used to come to our house in the ’30s and play the piano,” Boles recalls. “He was a big, happy-go-lucky guy, and he loved to have a good time. I would climb up on his knee. They assumed I wanted to play the piano, which they were probably right. I mean, once I started tinkering I got fascinated. … My mother had to tell me to give it a rest! But she backed me 100 percent. She was a lovely, lovely lady. I was just starting to make it when she died.”

Make it he has. Part of the legendary “7th Hour” jam sessions at Northern High School, Boles went on to become conductor or musical director for some of the most iconic nightspots of Detroit’s storied past, places like the downtown Playboy Club. He was musical director for Aretha Franklin “when she didn’t have no money,” worked for groundbreaking female comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, and though his personal taste leaned more to boogie-woogie than blues, he toured around the world with B.B. King.

A warm, jovial character and raconteur with decades of stories to tell, perhaps his follow-up CD will be spoken word. “I think about some people, literary writers, who keep going into their 90s,” Boles reflects. “Eubie Blake was still playing piano at 101. It’s not up to you anyway, whether you survive or not. You’re not in charge of this life.”