Charles Boles, Detroit jazz icon, releases first album — at age 81

published January 28, 2014 | posted by detroit

At the age of 81.

The Detroit-born jazz pianist, raised in the city’s Black Bottom district, has been playing for nearly as long as he can remember — encouraged at an early age by his adoptive mother’s cousin, the legendary Fats Waller. During the ensuing years, Boles has racked up an impressive résumé that includes stints recording and touring with artists such as B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Etta James, Moms Mabley, Dinah Washington and many others.

He’s been a fixture around Detroit as well, from the Hastings Street to his latest regular gig, every Tuesday night at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe in Grosse Pointe since mid-2012. But an album of his own has eluded Boles until last month’s release of “Blue Continuum.”

“I was busy on the road, and then you do other things,” says Boles, who was educated via Berklee School of Music correspondence course and also taught for eight years at Oakland University and 15 for the Detroit Public Schools system. “I thought about (an album) but I didn’t pursue it. But suddenly things work out for the best.”

The album opportunity came from Dirty Dog co-owner Gretchen Valade, the chairwoman of Harper Woods-based Mack Avenue Records and its Detroit Music Factory subsidiary. She had some of the company executives listen to Boles and his group, “and they said, ‘Y’know what? Maybe we should record you.’ I said ‘OK,’ and it went from there.”

In the case of “Blue Continuum,” “there” is actually somewhere Boles has never been before. The 11-track album, which features five of his own compositions — some dating back to the ’80s — features a quartet that includes guitarist Ron English, an old friend and fellow educator.

“I grew up in an era where saxophone or trumpet was the thing — Charlie Parker, Miles (Davis), that kind of thing — or sometimes I’d have a band where I would use trombone,” explains Boles, who was part of B.B. King’s band during the late ’60s. “I never thought about having a guitar lead.”

But he and English began playing together after Boles took over the late Johnnie Bassett’s spot at the Dirty Dog. “I figured, ‘That guy plays guitar and I’m going to replace a guitar player, so maybe I should have a guitar in the band,’” he recalls.

The teaming works as seamlessly on the stylistically diverse “Blue Continuum” as it has onstage. English contributed four songs to the set, and with bassist John Dana and drummer Renell Gonsalves, the troupe also works through renditions of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” and Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady.” The centerpiece, however, is “Liz,” a 10-minute workout inspired by Boles’ adoptive mother, who also played piano.

And Boles has another song inspired by his birth mother, which he’s saving for a next album that he certainly hopes will come before another 81 years.

“I’m champing at the bit,” says Boles, who still lives in Detroit with his third wife. He also has eight children, 23 grandchildren and “somewhere between 25 and 30” great-grandchildren.

“Now that I’ve got this started, I want to do some more. I’ve got tons of songs. So does Ron. We write all the time, and we don’t always write with the idea of saying, ‘I’m gonna record this’; You write for the creativity of writing, and if you can play with some guys and get them to play it, that’s great.

“But we’re eager beavers. I’d certainly like to get at least one more out there. (Mack Avenue) signed me to a contract for 15 years. Fifteen years! I said, ‘What are you doing signing me to a contract for that long?!” But as long as it’s there, I’m going to try to use it.”

The Charles Boles Quartet featuring Ron English celebrates the release of “Blue Continuum” from 5-9 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28, at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe, 97 Kercheval, Grosse Pointe. The performances are free, but reservations are suggested. Call 313-882-5299 or visit

Oakland Press - Gary Graff



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