Charles Boles Talks About his Career

Charles Boles is a master of many shades of jazz from boogie and blues to bebop. Born in Detroit in 1932 he started playing in bars along fabled Hastings Street in Paradise Valley in 1947 and hung out at jam sessions with budding bebop stars like Tommy Flanagan, Roland Hanna, Barry Harris, Donald Byrd, Sonny Red, and Paul Chambers. “There were several houses where you could jam in those days: Bobby Barnes’, Joe Brazil’s, for example.” Boles tried New York for a year, encouraged by Harris and Flanagan, but decided to come back to his hometown for a career that allowed him to have a more family centered life. He has spent many years as an accompanist and sometime musical director for vocalists like Damita Jo, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Pancho Hagood, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mary Wells, and most notably B.B. King who said of Boles “I want this guy because he can play the blues in any key.”

In 1964 Boles replaced Claude Black in Aretha Franklin’s Trio and was followed by Teddy Harris, another well-known pianist in Detroit’s jazz world. This was during the early stages of Aretha’s career when she was largely a jazz act touring cities like Indianapolis, Columbus and Buffalo. In the late 1960s Boles played for more than a year at Detroit’s Playboy Club, which provided a lot of work for local jazzmen. Boles replaced Matt Michaels and recalls that the club “had never had a black musical director and the club made a big deal of it.” In the early seventies Boles had one of the highlights of his career when he played behind Mel Torme at the Elmwood Casino in Windsor.

Most recently Boles has led a quartet at a weekly gig at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe for six years. That quartet has released a CD, Blue Continuum, on the Detroit Music Factory label in late 2013. The group included guitarist Ron English, late bassist John Dana and drummer Rennell Gonsalves. “I got to know Ron very well when we both taught at Oakland University.” Boles and English also share a background of playing behind several Motown singers.

“I got the gig at Dirty Dog when (guitarist) Johnnie Bassett got sick and could not make it in 2012. He was going into hospice. I did two days at first then (owner) Gretchen (Valade) suggested Tuesdays. I started on July 12 and stayed for 6 years (until December 2018). I have not played a club that long since 1948. Gretchen loves the music and supports it. I get along very well with her, loved working for her.” Gretchen Valade is also the main benefactor of the Detroit Jazz Festival and the Boles-English Quartet often has often played opening night for the festival. When Ron English was unable to make the gig at the Dirty Dog, Boles would bring in saxophonist James Hughes who shares a love for the mainstream jazz repertoire. “He’s a young guy with old ideas” as Boles put it. “I met him at a show at the Royal Oak Theater.”

On Sunday June 9 we will have a chance to hear Boles’ new group with tenorist James Hughes, bassist Jeff Pedraz and drummer Rennell Gonsalves at Schoolcraft College in Livonia. Who knows — maybe Ron English will join the group on stage.

ABOVE: James Hughes

photograph by Jeff Dunn