May 4, 1986: A Woodwind Summit at Swift’s
On May 4, 1986, James Williams convened a Woodwind Summit at Jonathan Swift’s on Harvard Square.
I’d never call Jonathan Swift’s a jazz club, but the big basement room with the low ceiling did book its share of jazz in the late 1970s and 1980s, and I heard the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Stan Getz there. This Woodwind Summit, though, was a one-of-a-kind.
For starters, it was a benefit, organized by the Boston Jazz Society to raise money for its scholarship fund. Founded in 1973 with the mission, “Keep Jazz Alive,” the Boston Jazz Society’s primary means of doing this by 1986 was through its scholarship program. The Society staged concerts, and held its famous Jazz BBQs, to raise the money needed to fund the program. Scholarship recipients prior to 1986 included saxophonists Bobby Ricketts and Ralph Moore, and trombonist Mike Grey.
The BJS asked pianist James Williams to put a band together, and although Williams no longer lived in Boston, he was never far away and always seemed to find the time to aid a good cause. He assembled a brass-free band with a lot of firepower on the front line: saxophonists Andy McGhee, Bill Pierce, Bill Easley, and special guest Gary Bartz. Bartz was well-known through his associations with Eric Dolphy, McCoy Tyner, and others, and his own NTU Troop. Easley was an old pal of Williams’s from Memphis. Bostonians McGhee and Pierce were both teaching at Berklee, as was bassist Whit Browne. Drummer Alan Dawson, like Williams, was a former member of the Berklee faculty. If nothing else, it was the right group to play a scholarship fund benefit.
It’s hard to imagine the afternoon as anything other than a relaxed blowing session, with heads played in unison and plenty of moving back and forth between axes. There would have been differences in style, with McGhee a generation older and years of big band work on his resume, while Bartz had his edgier, more exploratory approach.
Bill Pierce, though, was in the midst of a very fertile period. He’d spent four years (1979-1983) with Blakey’s Jazz Messengers before settling in to teach at Berklee, and had recorded five LPs with James Williams in the early/mid 1980s. His own first LP as a leader (William the Conqueror, Sunnyside 1013) came in 1985, and he was about to begin his eight-year association with Tony Williams. Pierce might have been the one to catch that afternoon.
Bill Pierce is under-represented on YouTube, but here are a pair of short solos culled from 1980s performances, the first with Blakey and the second with Tony Williams.