June 9, 1954: Jazz Night Born at the Boston Arts Festival
Jazz Night was first included as part of the program during the Third Boston Arts Festival, in 1954. Jazz happily took its place on the festival stage in the Public Garden on the festival’s third night, following Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and preceding Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness.
Jazz Night came about though the lobbying efforts of Father Norman O’Connor, the Jazz Priest from Boston University, George Wein of Storyville, and John McLellan of WHDH radio. They, and their allies, convinced the Brahmin-heavy Board of Trustees to try jazz for one night to see how it went.
They started the night with an erudite panel discussing some flavor or other of “is jazz serious music.” Panelists included O’Connor, McLellan, and Wein, as well as Rod Nordell from the Christian Science Monitor and Prof. Klaus Liepmann, head of the Music Department at MIT. The panel asserted that jazz could indeed be taken seriously.
That decided, it was on to the music, and there were two groups presenting. One was a modern group led by Charlie Mariano, which included Serge Chaloff and others unknown. Was Jaki Byard there? Herb Pomeroy? Bernie Griggs? Jimmy Zitano? They’re all gone now, so we’ll probably never know. Nor do we know what they played.
The second group played the history of jazz, with the usual chestnuts featured: “High Society,” “At the Jazz Band Ball,” “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” Things livened up a bit with “Swinging the Blues” from the Basie era and “After You’ve Gone” in the Goodman style. We know the personnel in this band and what they played, because Storyville Records had a crew on hand to tape this portion of the show. The result was Jazz at the Boston Arts Festival (Storyville LP 311). The modernists, and the jam session featured the combined bands, went unrecorded.
The band, a good one, included Ruby Braff, trumpet; Vic Dickenson and Dick LeFave, trombones; Sam Margolis, tenor; Al Drootin, clarinet and tenor; George Wein, piano (there’s that man again); John Field, bass; and Buzzy Drootin, drums.
The crowd was estimated between five and ten thousand, everybody had a good time, and spectators reported you could hear the jam session across the lagoon, across Arlington Street, and all the way to the corner of Newbury and Dartmouth. A Boston Arts Festival tradition was born.