July 3, 1967: The Kids Are Alright at Newport
Although saxophonist Henry “Boots” Mussulli still led a quartet in the mid-sixties, the main focus of his professional life then was on teaching. He taught privately as well as in the Milford, Mass. schools, and he enjoyed it.
In November 1964, Mussulli and his Milford friend Leo Curran organized the Milford Area Youth Orchestra. With a network of music teachers recommending potential members, Mussulli began auditioning what was to be an 18-piece big band. But Mussulli had a hard time turning away any worthy youngster, and his band ended up with 54 pieces, and players anywhere from 11 to 18 years of age. Mussulli wrote the arrangements, and composed a few originals, for the large ensemble, which performed its initial concert in May 1965. The band was popular, and able to fill school auditoriums easily.
In January 1967, the Milford band played a standout set in a “Jazz for Youth” program at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival in January 1967. George Wein, waiting to play with his Newport All-Stars, was floored. He invited the Milford band to Newport. “All I think of when I see and hear these kids is that if every high school in every town had a band like this, we wouldn’t have to worry about the future of jazz,” he later said.
And Down Beat’s reporter was amazed by some “genuinely first-rate performances,” including the mature phrasing of trombonist Tony Lada, and drumming of Bob Tamagni, “who drove the unwieldy unit without letup.” (Both Lada and Tamagni are longtime faculty members at Berklee.)
At Newport, it was almost as if it were scripted for a film. The emcee announced a youth band, and the spectators started drifting off for bathroom breaks and refreshments. Then the music started, and people stopped in the aisles—those are kids?—then drifted back to their seats. They listened to a clarinetist, all of 13, take on “Begin the Beguine.” They heard “Lullaby of Birdland” and a medley of big-band themes, and Neal Hefti’s “Splanky.”
Don Ellis had his own orchestra waiting to go on, but Ellis and company dug the Milford band. Reuben Leon, the lead alto and himself a music teacher in the Los Angeles schools, told a reporter: “They swing. They sound exciting. They play with conviction, that’s the big thing. Exuberance.” And Ellis himself added: “I think these kids are tremendous. How come we haven’t heard of them on the West Coast?”
Their set at Newport was a success, and the future looked promising. The Milford Area Youth Orchestra included kids from more than 15 neighboring communities, and Mussulli had been appointed Supervisor of Music in the Milford Public School System. Perhaps Milford could be the model for other school systems and other regions. There was interest, and excitement.
Two months later, Mussulli was dead at age 51, of cancer. The orchestra was Mussulli’s dream, and the dream died with him. Milford was unable to find a replacement, and the orchestra disbanded.But it was a good band, and a good idea, and one does wonder how far Boots could have taken it.