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How the basement of Brookline’s Veteran’s Post turned into a hotspot for local jazz

Drummer Paul July Joseph performs with the Nadav Brenner Trio at the POSTunderground. Photo by Jay Worley
July 2, 2024

A sandwich board that reads “The POSTunderground,” resting against the doorway of Brookline’s Veterans Post for most of the week, stands upright on Friday night as jazz thrums in the background.

The basement of the building, home to the local American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), has no elevated stage, so musicians assume their positions behind music stands. Illuminated by colored overhead lamps and Christmas lights, the backdrop is floral wallpaper, American flags, and framed photographs of jazz pioneers.

John Purcell, a retired music teacher and jazz musician who is one of the two architects of the grassroots establishment, describes a speakeasy feeling. “You see this dark concrete building where nothing is going on. But if you go in and you go downstairs there’s this party going on. It’s like a secret.”

That poorly kept secret has become “a mecca for local jazz,” Purcell says.

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Audience members take their seats at two-by-two foot tables that Purcell “schlepped” to a friend’s carpentry workshop to be cut to the right size. At 7:30 p.m., the first set begins.

Post 11 American Legion Commander Elmon Hendrickson, a former army medic, is there for every show.

Purcell and Hendrickson first crossed paths when the Brookline Music School, where Purcell taught for 38 years as Jazz & Rock Ensemble Coordinator, began using the Post’s upstairs space as a recital hall.

Before 2016, the Post was used mainly for a veterans meeting still held by the American Legion once a month, ten months out of the year. Hendrickson spearheaded a renovation to construct a more community-minded space. The building hums with music rehearsals, Israeli folk dancing, and also hosts yoga classes.

Veteran Len Wholey is the Post’s adjutant, collecting member dues and performing secretarial duties. Purcell’s weekday rehearsals for Friday occasionally draw Wholey away from his work. “Sometimes the practice is so good that I’ve sat down and listened to a song or two,” he said.

In 2019, the commander approached Purcell with a proposal. “He came to me about creating a Friday musical event,” said Purcell. “Elmon was trying to create something for the community and his veterans, wanting to bring some life and excitement into the building.”

The musician was sold when Hendrickson showed him the basement setup, and he knew the Post had a liquor license. “It was destined to be a jazz club,” Purcell said.

Purcell moved in his gear, rounding up amplifiers and a keyboard, to equip the room as a performance space. He then asked world-renowned jazz trumpeter Phil Grenadier to headline the first show, which he anticipated would add legitimacy to the new club. Grenadier, like most of the musicians in the house band — including Purcell on saxophone — is a Brookline native.

Big-name Boston players such as Jerry Bergonzi and Geroge Garzone have also thrown their weight behind the mission. The “non-capitalist jazz venue open to one and all,” as advertised on the website, reflects Purcell’s philosophy that “music is a human right.”

The POSTunderground survives on donations. “Charging admission is totally at odds with creating a gathering place.” It was a non-starter for Purcell. “If we’re creating something for the community, and for veterans, we can’t charge admission.”

The bartenders are members who volunteer. Vietnam veteran Greg Taylor commutes from Sturbridge. “It helps him, seeing the people and the community enjoy themselves,” Commander Hendrickson said.

Matt Marcus (piano), Matt Stavrakas (bass) and Greg Conroy (drums) perform at the POSTunderground. Photo by Jay Worley

A community space for Brookline

A local audience sustains the POSTunderground. “We’ve managed over the years to have a self-selected community who is really there to listen. There aren’t that many places where the audience is really there for the music,” said Purcell.

Rich Shelley, a Brookline resident who promotes the club on social media and tapes shows, was first a club regular. Shelley became acquainted with a young pianist from Newton while working as a mailman. “I saw on Facebook he was playing (at the Post), so I decided to drop over. And the rest is history,” Shelley recounted.

The POSTunderground now runs on Fridays of alternate months. But the haunt operated every Friday for its first year and a half, enduring a series of slow nights. When the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 led to more than a year of hiatus, Shelley live-streamed performances.

The post-pandemic turnout has revealed that “the place had established itself pretty firmly in the community,” Purcell said. Shelley estimates there are 40 to 50 people at each show.

The Veterans Post is shared between the American Legion and the VFW, organizations providing veterans with emotional, social, and financial support. According to Hendrickson, out of their 100 American Legion members about 15 to 25 frequent the POSTunderground, and 10 to 12 VFW members also regularly attend.

‘The audience likes crazy’

That Boston teems with students, professionals, and non-professional musicians searching for gigs works to Purcell’s advantage. During its tenure, the Post has featured student-run big bands from the New England Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, and the Harvard Alumni Jazz Band. Smaller groups play straight-ahead jazz, original compositions, and other styles.

“It has that intimacy of a small jazz club you’d find in New York City,” said Shelley.

But unlike a traditional New York venue, at the Brookline Village fixture, young and non-professional musicians can perform in a professional setting. A regular time slot allows groups to evolve musically and coalesce into cohesive units.

Epistrophy, a group directed by Purcell, was recently added to the Friday night mix. (Purcell borrowed the name from the title of a Thelonious Monk tune.) Precocious middle schooler Miles Chang is the pianist. “It feels good to play with my friends — and go crazy — because, you know, the audience likes crazy,” said Chang.

Purcell is grateful to Hendrickson for donating the space and commends him for his public spirit. “You know, he’s a very righteous kind of guy. He’s got 10,000 jobs: he also does Weights and Measures in Brookline; he’s a mason. He’s just quite a guy.”

Each of the two men credits the other more than himself. “I’m happy I met Purcell because he brought back life within the community and with the veterans here at the Post,” said Hendrickson.

In 2019, Purcell was given the Brookline Veterans Service Award for bringing music to the Post.

In his acceptance speech, he said, “The military knows that organizations are greater than the sum of their parts. There are things that people can do together that they could never do individually. That’s a jazz thing, too. You need other players for jazz to exist, and they’re greater than the sum of their parts.”

“You wouldn’t think jazz and veterans go together,” he prefaced the speech. “But they do.”

The POSTunderground’s full schedule can be found on its website.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled pianist Miles Chang’s name.