Boas, Kenneth Martin (1925-2018)

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 4/07/2020
  • Essay 21008

Kenny Boas, a laid-back piano player, was born and raised in Seattle's Central Area. Boas hung out and performed, often as the only Jewish musician, with jazz heavyweights including Floyd Standifer (1929-2007), Buddy Catlett (1933-2014), Ernestine Anderson (1928-2016), Quincy Jones (b. 1933), Ray Charles (1930-2004), and more. The pianist played in the Savoy Boys Swing Band and Bumps Blackwell Senior Band and rocked out at the YMCA at 23rd and Olive. He joined American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 76 as a teenager, but left in the 1950s, upset over its policy of segregation, and joined AFM Local 493, representing African American and other non-white musicians. Boas was an unsung hero and treasure who humbly understood and enjoyed the heyday of jazz music in Seattle.

Deep Roots

Kenneth Martin Boas was born at Seattle's Saint Luke's hospital on April 22, 1925, to Lazare Azarhi (1904-1977) and Hilda Boas (1898-1943), immigrants from the Jewish communities of Russia and Germany respectively. His parents separated just before his birth and Boas never met his biological father. He was raised by his mother and her family, who had deep roots in the German-speaking Jewish community of Posen, then part of Germany (now part of Poland and known as Poznan). His mother Hilda was born on April 12, 1895, in Posen, one of four children of Henry Boas (1861-1936) and Martha Levy Boas (1866-1943). Hilda's brothers Alfred Boas (1891-1975) and Max Boas (1893-1974) were born in Germany, and the youngest child, Martin Boas (1898-1953) was born in Alaska.

The Boas family immigrated to the United States in 1897, settling in Dyea, Alaska. In 1899, Henry moved the family to Skagway and purchased property, opening the Boas Tailor and Furrier Shop. A few years later the family moved to Fairbanks during the Alaska Gold Rush. The Boases owned several businesses. After a May 1911 fire near their clothing business in Iditarod, the family immediately moved from Alaska and settled in Seattle the same year.

Kenny's father Lazare Azarhi was born on May 28, 1904, in Melitopol, in southern Ukraine (then part of Russia) and grew up speaking Hebrew. According to immigration records, Azarhi lived in Harbin, China, prior to 1921. It is likely Azarhi's family may have fled to Harbin to escape the chaos and brutal changes of the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Azarhi left Harbin in 1921 at the age of 18 and briefly lived in Yokohama, Japan. By March 1922, he had arrived in San Francisco. The next year he moved to Seattle, arriving on September 8, 1923.

Within weeks of his arrival, Azarhi met Hilda Boas. Upon their engagement in May 1924, Hilda's father hosted a musical performance at the family's home in celebration. On June 22, 1924, the young couple married at the Chevra Bikur Cholim synagogue (later the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute) at 17th and Yesler in Seattle. The new couple lived in the Central Area, which at the time was a predominately Jewish neighborhood with a growing African America population.

Lazare and Hilda parted ways just before their son was born. According to naturalization records, Lazare Azarhi changed his name to Larry Lawrence and remarried in 1927. He would remarry at least three more times and have two more children, Norma Louise Azarhi (or Asarhi) in 1928 and Barbara Azarhi in 1938. Boas never met his estranged father or his half-sisters.

Seattle Boyhood

Kenny was raised in a Jewish household by his maternal grandparents, Henry and Martha, his mother Hilda, and his uncles. By the age of 6 or 7, he showed an interest in playing piano. He attended Longfellow and T. T. Minor elementary schools. His mother made it possible for him to take piano lessons from a Mrs. Cushing who lived in the neighborhood.

In 1932, Kenny began taking piano lessons from music director Samuel Goldfarb (1891-1978) at the Temple de Hirsch synagogue at 15th and Union. At some point, he also began learning how to play trombone. At 13, Kenny had his Bar Mitzvah at Temple de Hirsch.

He and his friend Nicholas A. Jappe (b. 1925) began publishing a twice-monthly newsletter they called The Loud Speaker, printing 500 copies on a mimeograph machine. The paper included advertisements, articles, and Kenny's comic strip called "Booey & Hooey." Kenny and Nick hand-delivered the paper to businesses in their neighborhood and whoever was willing to take it.

In 1939, Kenny participated in The Seattle Times Championship Pitchers Contest with "Old Woodenface," a wooden frame built to represent a batter's strike zone. He had to throw three balls through the center of the frame. He also participated as a Guest Guesser for the paper, predicting the winners of college and pro football games, a popular activity at the time for teens. That same year, he heard his first song by Count Basie (1904-1984) -- "Sent for You Yesterday and Here You Come Today." Boas later recalled:

"There was something about that music from Kansas City, just so light. Lester Young, the whole rhythm section was different. They struck a spark in me. It was revolutionary" (Boas interview transcript).

Wartime Whoopee -- Bebop, Blues, and Jazz

World War II had been raging in Europe since 1939 and the vibrant jazz scene in Seattle's Chinatown/International District and Central Area caught teenage Kenny's attention. African Americans were drawn to the Puget Sound area by jobs, and nightclubs were sprouting all over the Seattle area, especially on Jackson Street. Most clubs were open at all hours of the day and night, staying open illegally after official closing hours.

Boas recalled seeing Jimmie Lunceford (1902-1947). "I'll never forget that. This is ancient history: 1939. And then I think in 1940, I saw him again" (Boas interview transcript). Lunceford was a successful band leader who performed frequently in Seattle at the Trianon Ballroom at Third and Wall Street between 1939 and 1947.

Lemuel Honeysuckle (1907-1995), a prominent African American businessmen and pillar of the community, remodeled the old Gala Theater at 2203 East Madison Street into the Savoy Ballroom. The ballroom was named in tribute to the Harlem jazz club of the same name in New York. Honeysuckle's first entertainment booking was Seattle's first African American swing band, "The Savoy Boys."

The Savoy Boys band was led by 17-year-old Billy Tolles (1924-2005), a tenor saxophone player. The entire band was made up of teenaged high-school students. Sixteen-year-old Kenny Boas appeared onstage playing piano as the band's only white musician when it debuted at the Savoy Ballroom in December 1941. The band played together until the fall of 1943.

In January 1943, the Jive Bombers jazz band, a U.S. Navy band, was founded by Harry "Doc" Wheeler, John Willis, and Al Hickey while they were training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago. They transferred to Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle and Boas performed with the band after some of the original members were gradually discharged from the military. He explained: "Jive Bombers ... I wasn't in the service, but they didn't have a piano player" (Boas interview transcript).

Wyatt Ruther (1923-1999), who performed with the Jive Bombers, took Boas under his wing, taking the time to feed Boas's hunger to soak up the type of jazz music that was being performed in Seattle. Ruther later said of Boas: "He didn't try to play a thousand notes. He just played the few he knew" (Ruther interview transcript).

Rough Patch

Around the time he graduated from Broadway High School (1625 Broadway Avenue) in June 1943, Boas's beloved grandmother Martha Boas died. The following month almost to the day in July, his mother Hilda passed away. His mother and grandmother had raised him and were major influences in his life. At 18, the loss of his grandmother and mother in such a short time required him to grow up fast.

Boas had already begun playing piano in juke joints in the African American community, often as the only Jewish member in the bands. Off stage, Boas was quiet, shy, and reserved but had a great sense of humor, often surprising people with his off-beat jokes. He stood 5-feet-11 at about 165 pounds, with pale green-gray eyes, dark-brown hair, and a ruddy complexion, with a visible scar on his right side from having his appendix removed at age 13. He was laid-back as a piano player.

Boas felt at home playing with African American musicians, who were his friends. He knew he wanted to play jazz for the rest of his life. His style of music began to develop into bebop as he listened to the likes of pianist Bud Powell (1924-1966) and saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920-1955). He said:

"I remember sitting and listening to Charlie Parker records. We'd play them over and over again. It was almost like a religious ceremony. It was a revolutionary thing he was doing" (Seattle Performs, 140).

Trumpet player Pete Barrington and drummer Dave Stetler (1923-2002), members of the band "The Men About Town," suggested Boas join American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 76. On August 17, 1943, at the age of 18, he became a union member.

Jazzing on His Own

In September 1944, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm Jazz Band, an integrated all-women orchestra, performed at the Civic Auditorium (later Seattle Center Opera House and then McCaw Hall) and at the Black and Tan nightclub at 12th and Jackson. Boas worked briefly with one of the band members Violet Wilson, a talented bassist, pianist, and vocalist -- and also a master barber -- while she was in Seattle.

That year Boas started building his collection of Max Roach, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker 78 rpm records. The music held a prominent place in his heart and life. His fondness for linking bebop, blues, and jazz increased as he listened more and more, fueling his love for the music.

Boas met Roscoe Weathers, an alto saxophonist and bandleader from Memphis, around 1945. They played in a trio with drummer Merl Fuller (1921-2003) at the Two Pals Smoke Shop on Jackson Street in Seattle. The shop had a bar and gambling in the back. While playing there, Boas learned the bass pattern while playing ballads. He said Weathers use to tell him: "The test is to take a ballad and play it slow and after you play the melody to keep playing it. The test of a good musician" (Boas interview transcript).

The years 1946 and 1947 were pivotal for Boas. He worked a fulltime job and played music part-time. For a time Boas and Weathers lived in Portland, Oregon, sharing an apartment and playing at Paul's Paradise and other clubs. Wyatt Ruther called Roscoe Weathers "the Charlie Parker of the Northwest," and Boas later described a time in Portland listening to Charlie Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple" on a jukebox:

"I never will forget, Roscoe turned around to me and he had tears coming down his eyes. I said, 'What's the matter?' and he said, 'Oh, you don't understand. Those guys, it's just like they were praying'" (de Barros, Jackson Street ..., 86-87).

Boas began to engineer his career steps to performing professionally fulltime. Taking his musical education seriously, he enrolled at Seattle's esteemed Cornish School in the fall of 1946. He completed his music studies at Cornish in June 1947. During this period, he also performed continuously on weeknights and weekends, soaking in and perfecting the music.

Boas played in Vernon A. "Pops" Buford's (1921-1994) band with alto saxophonist Pony Poindexter (1926-1988). They played at local military bases, Fort Lawton in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood and Fort Lewis near Tacoma. Occasionally, Ernestine Anderson would sing in Buford's band. In March 1947, Boas played at a Sunday-afternoon jazz concert hosted by local promoter Norm Bobrow (1917-2008) at the Repertory Playhouse, along with Buford, Poindexter, Skeeter Evans, Danny Hall, Dave Henderson, Keith Purvis, Bill Rinaldi, and Frank Sugia. A Seattle Times reviewer wrote:

"Personal preference was for the modulated type of blues and slower numbers. Background work by Boas on piano, and Rinaldi on bass, were notable" ("Bobrow's Jazz ...").

The following month, Boas jammed in the "Jazz at the Met" series hosted by Bobrow in the Metropolitan Theatre at 4th and University.

In the fall of 1947, the Washington National Guard 41st Infantry Division Band was formed at Camp Murray in Fort Lewis. Led by Seattle bandleader and newly commissioned Warrant Officer Robert A. "Bumps" Blackwell (1918-1985), the band included Kenny Boas, future superstar Quincy Jones, Buddy Catlett, Lincoln Pigford (1925-1992), Charlie Taylor, Al Pace, Dick Torlakson, Bruce Ford, Dave Tuttle, and "just about anybody else in the neighborhood who could hold a horn," many just out of high school (de Barros, Jackson Street ..., 106).

When Boas's friend Roscoe Weathers married on December 1, 1947, he and Merl Fuller were witnesses in the wedding. By 1948, Boas branched out to after-hours and social clubs often opening at 11 or midnight, respectively:

"I remember that the sun would start to shine the next morning, and someone would say, 'Kenny, put the shades up ...' We'd close the sun out and keep playing" (Seattle Performs, 140).

Jamming at the Y

Boas spent a lot of time hanging out and jamming at the East Madison branch of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) at the corner of 23rd Avenue and East Olive Way in Seattle's Central Area (or Central District) neighborhood. The Y was a hotspot for African American jazz music and a great gathering place for the community. Dances were held at the Y every Friday night with some of the hottest performers.

Boas had met trumpet and sax player, vocalist, and future bandleader Floyd Standifer and bass and sax player Buddy Catlett at one of the Y's Friday-night dances. Boas, a little older than Standifer and Catlett, performed at the dances, designed to keep young men and women off the streets. Soon Standifer and Gerald Frank (1932-1996) were going to Boas's apartment to get him to play the latest record they bought. Standifer remembered:

"We'd wake Kenny up and say, 'Man, we want to use your record player again' and the lady downstairs didn't like it" (Standifer interview transcript).

Boas also spent a lot of time at Catlett's house listening to music, learning rhythm, and consuming what was happening around him. Catlett would play drums and Boas piano, each learning from the other. Boas's musical education at Catlett's house marked his growth in bebop and jazz:

"I really learned from him how to play rhythm and how to accompany what was happening around me" (Seattle Performs, 139).

Many musicians who entertained on those Friday nights at the Y would later become household names nationally or locally, including Ernestine Anderson, Quincy Jones, Floyd Standifer, and Buddy Catlett, to name a few.

Seventeen-year-old singer and pianist Ray Charles Robinson -- who would drop his last name before his rise to international stardom -- arrived in Seattle in March 1948. Within weeks he worked at the Black and Tan and landed a regular show at the Rocking Chair, on 14th Avenue near Yesler, with Gosady McKee on guitar and Milt Garred (1925-1978) on bass. Boas recalled walking to the Rocking Chair to hear Ray Charles: "I could hardly wait to get there, I'd stay there until four or five in the morning sometimes" (Boas interview transcript).

At the time, Boas lived on 22nd off Madison near the Woodson Apartments at 1820 24th Avenue E. Charles lived not far away on 20th Avenue near Madison. His blindness did not limit him. Fiercely independent, Charles impressed most of the young musicians around him. Frequently Boas would meet Charles and Garred at the Woodson Apartments. The apartment building, located around the corner from the Washington Educational and Social Club on 23rd Avenue N, was a hub for musicians. Boas remembered Charles carrying around a clarinet or another reed instrument and playing it.

Charles would ask Boas to play music for him. He would play and Charles would say "Now wait a minute" and stand behind Boas, guiding him by placing his hands over the top of Boas's, saying "what you got to do is" (Boas interview transcript). Charles would give Boas letters he received from family and friends to write back to them.

"For two years he ran with Ray Charles: ... club-hopping in Seattle's illegal late-night dives, sharing keyboard fingerings" (Westneat). Charles's piano style rubbed off on Boas, especially his blues stylings. Charles left Seattle in 1950, not long before he catapulted to legendary status.

In 1949, Boas and Roscoe Weathers rented rooms next to each other at the Woodson Apartments, joining the other musicians living there. Their apartments became a place for aspiring beboppers to hangout. The musicians were all on the bottom floor of the building.

"That was one of the happiest winters I ever spent, the fall of '49. We would listen to music, and play gigs. Roscoe liked to cook. He'd get a pot, and everybody would bring something and he'd boil a bunch of stuff. Guys would come by to see him, like Sonny Criss and Gus Johnson. And Paul Quinichette, you know? They were all friends, from playing together. You could tell by the way they [acted] that they respected him" (de Barros, Jackson Street ..., 87).

Periodically, Boas worked with sax player Billy Tolles and vocalist and drummer Tommy "Fat Daddy" Adams at the nearby Washington Social and Entertainment Club.

Tale of Two Unions: Local 76 and Local 493

Boas became increasingly frustrated that African American musicians were being excluded from many jobs in and around Seattle. With official segregation still prevalent, AFM Local 76 excluded non-white musicians, and most of his friends belonged to Local 493, which had been formed to represent African Americans barred from the segregated local. Boas refused to hang out with Local 76 members at a time when work for him could have been substantial. He left Local 76 in 1951 and joined Local 493 on May 4, 1954.

Boas was not the first white musician to join Local 493. Bill Rinaldi, a white guitarist and bassist who frequented African American after-hour sessions on Jackson Street, switched to Local 493 in the 1930s out of frustration, becoming "the first Caucasian to join Local 493" (Keller, 131). More frustrated whites, including Traff Hubert (1926-2001); Norwegian-born Jan Kurtis Skugstad (b. 1938), Mike DeFillipis, and others, later followed suit.

A push to merge the locals was increasing. It became harder for Local 76 to resist. Eventually the two merged on January 14, 1958, and the landscape dramatically changed for members of both.

Changing Times

Later that year, on November 6, 1958, Boas married Louise Davis (b. 1927). The couple had met in a club and Kenny diligently pursued his future wife. At the time, he was working at the Wax and Raine Store as a clerk and playing music on weekends. Louise, an African American, thought he was nice but, coming from the south, was initially reluctant to become involved with someone of such different background. Kenneth and Louise had two daughters -- Renee J. Boas (b. 1957) and Sandra Boas (b. 1961) -- joining four children from Louise's first marriage -- Charles, Jeannette, Annie Mae, and Jimmy Lee Gant. Boas continued playing music while raising a family:

"During that time I played mostly weekend stuff. I played with Eddie Young, a trombone player. Then I played gigs with Marv Thomas" (Boas interview transcript)

He also played with Billy Tolles and Jabo Ward (1919-2004) at Dave's Fifth Avenue (112-16 5th Avenue N), and with Gerald Frank at the Mardi Gras Grill at 2047 E Madison Street, which he called "a perfect gig" with "a good drummer" (Boas interview transcript).

Seattle's once-vibrant jazz scene began to fade after the integration of the two union locals. A variety of factors contributed to the bottom beginning to drop out of Seattle's jazz. Once-lively clubs were closing; rock 'n' roll and R&B music were rising. The music simply moved away from its roots in the African American community. Audiences changed, and the mood of performances shifted from the comfort of the neighborhood. New music replaced Jackson Street jazz.

During the 1960s, Boas performed in Bremerton with a small group on weekends. In the 1970s, he performed with a short-lived R&B band, the Floaters, and played at the Jet Inn in a quartet with Bobby Tuggle, Milt Garred, and Joe Brashear. Many musicians traveled from city to city, but Boas never considered going on the road, instead opting to stay and perform in the Seattle area. Portland was as far as he wanted to go. It did not dawn on him until years later that Seattle had been alive with music busting all over the place and he was in the middle of it all.

Unsung Hero of Seattle Jazz

Kenny Boas was a talented jazz pianist who was a fixture on the Seattle jazz scene in the 1940s and 1950s. One of many unsung heroes of Seattle jazz not really recognized during that explosive period, he was nevertheless born at the right time in the right place, surrounded by a rich musical scene.

Boas never made it big as a musician, but he continued to play in the community well into the 1980s, while working as a printer at the University of Washington. In 2010, shortly before he retired from working at Kimball Elementary in Seattle as a crossing guard after 11 years, staff and students discovered his musical talent and history unexpectedly when he sat down one day at the school piano.

On the evening of July 23, 2015, at the Theatre Off Jackson in Seattle's International District, three plays featuring jazz musicians were performed, one about Buddy Bolden of New Orleans, and two presenting "Unsung Heroes of Seattle Jazz" -- Kenny Boas, written by his daughter Sandra Boas-DuPree and directed by his granddaughter Lauren DuPree, and Oscar Holden (1886-1969), written by his granddaughter Linda Holden Givens (the author of this article) and directed by Merri Ann Osborne, both set in 1946. Boas whispered to his daughter Sandra at the end of the play, "This was one of the happiest times of my life." Duly proud of her father, Sandra Boas-DuPree later said:

"Dad's legacy is his love and skill at playing the blues, bebop, and jazz with the same sound and touch of the African American musicians who were his friends. People always said he 'sounded like a black man.' He left Local 76 without hesitation because he was 'Kenny,' not because he was trying to be an activist but as an authentic lover of all people and a passionate believer in civil rights. It was common to see him talking to civil rights groups on the UW campus such as The Black Panthers or reading books about Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Dick Gregory, or Gandhi" (Boas-DuPree email).

Kenneth Martin Boas died in Seattle at the age of 93 in October 2018. He was survived by Louise Boas, his wife of 60 years, and their daughters.


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