The Troy Street Observer

July 6, 1963: When the Saints Went Marching Out

Photo of George Lewis
Clarinetist George Lewis

We’ll make one last visit to Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival, to bid it farewell.

The first nine years of Jazz Night, from 1954 through 1962, always had a good local flavor. The advisors, George Wein and Father Norman O’Connor, made sure of it. But Wein left Boston for New York in 1960, and O’Connor was transferred there by his Paulist order in 1962. Even if he were still a Bostonian, Wein might have begged off, because the 1963 Jazz Night conflicted with Newport, on July 6. In fact, Father O’Connor was emcee at Newport on the 6th, welcoming familiar faces like Ruby Braff, Ken McIntyre, Roy Haynes, and Johnny Hodges to the bandstand.

But back to that local flavor. Boston bands always anchored the proceedings, although guest soloists like Gerry Mulligan or Cannonball Adderley might be featured. Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, Serge Chaloff, Herb Pomeroy, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Rollins Griffith…it was an opportunity for Boston’s musicians to play before the hometown crowd.

Until 1963. For this Jazz Night, the trustees looked beyond Boston for the musicians, and a half-century into the past for their entertainment. George Lewis and his New Orleans jazz band would grace the festival stage. The George Lewis band, which was in fact an early Preservation Hall Jazz Band, included clarinetist Lewis, trombonist Big Jim Robinson, trumpeter Kid Howard, bassist Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau, drummer Joe Watkins, and banjoist Emanuel Sayles. “An experience of rejuvination,” is what emcee Alvin Kershaw called the Lewis band. But who needed rejuvination?

The Globe’s Harvey Siders noted that the band had trouble starting tunes together and that everything tended to sound the same. Still, the crowd, though smaller than in previous years, enjoyed it.

Meanwhile, the Globe’s Bill Buchanan was at Newport, where he reported that after the opening night show, George Wein, Charlie Mariano, and Pee Wee Russell found a piano and jammed until 5 a.m. The spirit of Jazz Night was alive and well! It just happened to be in Rhode Island.

Jazz Night was not as successful as it had been in past years, and in a cost-cutting move, it was dropped from the Boston Arts Festival in 1964. Forgotten by festival organizers, apparently, was that Jazz Night, at least until 1963, had been drawing 15-20 thousand people to the festival grounds annually. Surely that must have helped the festival’s bottom line. But jazz or no jazz, 1964 was the Boston Arts Festival’s finale; it was deep in debt and forced to shut down. And so we bid it adieu.

There would be live jazz on warm summer nights again, across Charles Street on the Common, but the city would wait another 18 years for it.

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