Gambling, Jazz, and Boston’s Musical Culture
One “grand” opening on June 23: the Encore Gambling Casino, a $2.6 billion project in Everett. One quiet closing on July 31: the Third Life Studio, a small improvisational music space in Union Square, Somerville. These two establishments are about two miles apart as the crow flies and culturally would seem to exist on separate planets. There is, however, one tangible link between them: money.
Boston maintains a fairly substantial jazz infrastructure. There’s a large pool of musicians and an audience. However, the relatively small number of venues means that the closing of any of these has an oversized impact on the scene. Ryles in Inman Square, Johnny D’s in Davis Square, and the Magnolia Loft in Jamaica Plain are three recent closings. Another is scheduled for the end of July, when the Third Life Studio will cease operations.
The Third Life story is familiar. There’s a real estate boom in Somerville, and a $1.4 billion-dollar construction project is slated to start in the fall that will completely change the face of Union Square. Susan Robbins, who runs Third Life, says: “All the growth, change, and development in Union Square is indeed positive in many ways. But it has also made it impossible for me to stay open.” The landlord would only give her a one-year lease, “at an exorbitant amount of money. More than can be supported by a humble yet beloved arts space.”
So, local music culture takes a blow, but why should the Encore concern itself with culture—it’s in it for the money, as gambling houses have always been. However, in the past, music was front and center whenever and wherever America drank, gambled, and had sex. But this is less and less true today.
Since the beginning of the Republic, “sporting” houses commonly had musical entertainment. The tonier houses hosted string quartets, while more modest operations had piano players. Earlier musicians in the houses remain anonymous, but by the late 19th century, one can identify the likes of Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake, and Jelly Roll Morton, who were all “professors” in such establishments. Storyville in New Orleans. Nuf said.
During the Great Depression, America’s record industry contracted dramatically. But many citizens seemed to have enough scratch to play the numbers in their hood or spring for a sip of bathtub gin served up in a speakeasy teacup. Pianists and bands were omnipresent in these mobster-run nightclubs and joints, and were important sources of steady employment for jazz musicians in the 1920s-30s.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when youth culture began its rise to hegemony and jazz/swing began to recede from its formerly central place in American music, a new generation of gangsters became sponsors of the music. It was in this era that Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky built the Flamingo in Las Vegas, followed by other mob joints—including the Sahara, the Sands, the New Frontier, the Riviera, and the Tropicana.
In that era, jazz instrumentalists were feeling the squeeze from rock ’n’ roll and R&B, but big band veterans and other mainstream jazz musicians were able to find refuge in Las Vegas, providing the soundtrack for the perpetual Vegas night. In casino lounges, trios and quartets serenaded gamblers nodding off or tanking up between blackjack binges. Big bands backed the big singers in the big rooms. Frank Sinatra, along with Rat Pack cronies Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin, was the entertainment bellwether. Work was steady, as large jazz ensembles routinely backed up dimmer luminaries like Steve and Eydie, Tom Jones, Ann-Margret, and Wayne Newton. Ironically, in this big-band besotted environment, the man who had played a major part in pushing jazz to the cultural periphery also found a home in Las Vegas: Elvis Presley. You can watch videos of Elvis backed by massed singers and large big bands, providing hyped-up jazzy backgrounds for the King’s gyrations.
While jazz took up residence in Las Vegas, composers like Elmer Bernstein and Quincy Jones were using jazz to underscore the gritty action of films like The Man With the Golden Arm and The Sweet Smell of Success, and Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and John Coltrane were taking the music much farther out. But such music won’t work to accompany dice tumbling on felt and ice cubes colliding in highball glasses. So, while jazz passed from swing to the avant-garde, from 52nd Street to academia, from Swiss Kriss laxative ads endorsed by Louis Armstrong to Movado watch ads with Wynton Marsalis, in Vegas, jazz remained viable in a twilit fashion, passing slowly from mainstream culture to hip nostalgia, to the outlier position it now occupies.
Jazz is not a part of Big Casino’s strategy to normalize “gaming”—formerly “gambling.” Given a good start by state lotteries and online poker, the normalization process is well under way. Casinos are shooting for an image that is neither James Bond at the Baccarat table (too elitist) nor (for obvious reasons) guys in the alley shooting craps. Wynn Resorts, creator of Encore, is a Las Vegas giant and it stands to reason that they will replicate the current Vegas approach to music in Everett.
In order to find out what was happening musically in Vegas, I called a friend who lives in Vegas. He’s a saxophonist but makes his living chiefly as a composer-arranger. He painted a picture for me of a city that still supports jazz—there are a half-dozen places for big bands to gig—but few people make their living playing shows in the big casinos. Many rely on teaching and only occasionally pick up work when an act calls for a larger jazz-capable ensemble. Much of the music is electronica or rock, and many singers rely on prerecorded tracks as backing, not live musicians.
Encore President Robert DeSalvio, when asked about the seeming lack of musical entertainment, replied that there has been music in the ballroom, but for only private events. He says the casino plans to “become part of the entertainment community of Boston.” What does that mean? The Wynn Corporation has bought 12 acres of real estate near the casino; now used mostly for parking, but bought as a “long-term development opportunity”—a potential “entertainment district.” Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria described this district: lots of hotel rooms, outdoor spaces, cafes, breweries, artist displays; a place where a family could spend an afternoon with perhaps one parent in the resort. Optimally, Big Casino would position itself a viable alternative to Disney World, but because many would-be gambling parents are burdened with children, it can’t be. There are no day care centers at the casino… yet. However, I imagine there will be in the “Entertainment District.”
So, is this a winning strategy for Boston? Everett ain’t exactly Monte Carlo, but neither is it Atlantic City, or Plainville, for that matter. It’s a catchment area for Metro Boston, which has always been home to two worldviews. One is the Sox-Bruins-Celtics-Pats (cheap seats), the perpetually half-broken T, Revere and Carson Beaches, Kelly’s Roast Beef, Bud Lite, and noncurated pizza. The other is the MFA, BSO, Crane’s Beach, Sox-Bruins-Celtics-Pats (box seats), taxis-Uber-Lyft, bistros, and craft IPA.
I doubt the Encore thinks it will make its nut by trying to rope in denizens of the latter, smaller segment, even if there’s more loose change floating around. For Big Money, it will try to lure “whales” from out of town and will rely on the less high-end and much larger local demographic to be steady customers. There’s no way to be sure, of course, but it’s a fair bet that this pool of gamblers is probably not the demographic that haunts Metro Boston’s jazz joints. If music is brought in, it will be along the lines of Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Celine Dion, Paul McCartney, etc. Going by what it’s booked and what it says on the website, this means music is simply not a vital component.
The Wynn Corporation, creator of Encore, is a seasoned and successful survivor of the Las Vegas casino wars, and with $2.5 billion at stake, the Encore rollout has no doubt been calibrated to a fare-thee-well. I’m not privy to the information-gathering aspect of the Encore operation, but it’s safe to assume they have hoovered in every shred of information that Facebook, Google, and Amazon can provide them on anyone who has so much as done an internet search for “poker chips.” As the Wynn Corporation says in its investment brochure: “STRONG REGIONAL DEMOGRAPHICS WITH… 5.6 million gaming age adults living within a 90-minute drive of Boston.”
Encore is mobilizing all the techniques proven successful in enticing Americans to buy into an experience that will lift them above the mundanities of quotidian life. The introductory paragraph on the Encore website hits all the buzz words: “Bold. Breathtaking. Perfectly Boston … offering the finest in luxury accommodations, five-star dining, gaming, shopping and more. … On every level, enchanting ambiance[sic]. Indulge in the excitement of our stunning casino. Immerse in the tranquility of our luxurious spa or our outdoor Harborwalk. … Everything was designed to create the most memorable experience for our valued guests.”
Note the omission of the word “entertainment” in that block of text. No, it’s “five-star dining, gaming, shopping.” Entertainment is relegated to the ambiguous category “and more.”
As of right now, the only mention of music on the website is this: “Memoire… Big Night Entertainment Group, the award-winning operators of The Grand at Boston’s Seaport bring their newest nightclub experience which includes top-tier DJ talent and sophisticated interiors.” Translation: Why hire 30 musicians when one DJ will do… with “sophisticated interiors”: formerly known as smoke machines and a light show.
In that same conversation with my musician friend in Las Vegas, I was told that the predator Steve Wynn, who was drummed out of the Encore process so that the Wynn Corporation would get licensed in Massachusetts, was a big fan and used to spend lots of money on live music. His ouster from the process, says my friend, represents “a victory for the board of the corporation,” which will be happy not to spend money on live music.
I surveyed a group of Boston-area jazz musicians and music presenters in order to try and get some perspective on how people related to the opening of the Encore and the closing of the Third Life Studio. Almost none said they would go to Encore or expected to have any musical relationship to it. There was disappointment and sadness about the closing of Third Life, but no serious pessimism about the future of the scene as a whole. There was definitely a sense that the Third Life had desirable features that are hard to find in venues open to jazz: an ample green room, a stage space able to accommodate large ensembles, flexible seating, good acoustics, an excellent grand piano, a welcoming atmosphere, and a low cost to rent the room. However, musicians and presenters remain optimistic, talking about new music series they believe will expand the jazz audience into different parts of the city. After July 31, you won’t be able to go to the Third Life Studio to hear the music, but you can still go to Outpost 186, Lily Pad, Wally’s, a number of other clubs, and to jazz series being held in Dorchester and Roxbury.
So, what’s the bottom line for local musicians and their audience? Will money fed into the slots find its way into the pockets of local musicians? Apart from $68 lobster rolls, the chance of beating House odds at the tables, an exacerbated housing panic, increased traffic snarls, and encouraging a growth spurt in gambling addiction rates, is there a chance local artists and musicians will get a boost because of the opening of the Encore? One well-paid gig a week, just one a month, would open up a welcome ray of fiscal daylight for a cohort that has to seriously hustle to survive. However, with jazz neither established as a potential nostalgia act, nor riding the crest of a popular revival, it might occasionally sneak in the back door of the Encore, but otherwise, no dice.
I can see “Kind of Blue” getting into rotation on the in-house muzak system, and in terms of art, there is a $24 million Jeff Koons statue on display, but that’s pretty much it. The information that Encore has gathered from your apps makes them pretty sure that’s all the culture a gambler could ask for in 2019. For local artists and musicians, it doesn’t seem that $2.6 billion plus $1.4 billion adds up to much.