The Troy Street Observer

July 22, 1968: At the Playhouse in Franklin Park

Photo of Elma Lewis and Duke Ellington
Elma Lewis and Duke Ellington. Photo Franklin Park Coalition.

If we’re counting up all the places in the Great Outdoors that featured summertime jazz hereabouts before 1990, we can’t overlook Franklin Park. Elma Lewis began the performing arts series in Franklin Park in 1966, but that was only one of her many activities. She was a teacher, community activist, and one of the most important figures in black cultural life in Boston during the second half of the twentieth century.

Lewis was an early friend of efforts to restore Franklin Park, and in 1966 she organized volunteers to clean up a dilapidated area and build a stage there. This modest theater was the beginning of the Playhouse in the Park, and for two months that summer Lewis presented musicians, actors, and dancers of all genres and styles.

It only got better. In 1967, Odetta came to the park for the first time, as did Babatunde Olatunji with his stage full of drummers and dancers. In 1968, successful fundraising brought a bounty of music to the park, including repeat performances by Odetta and Olatunji, and the Boston Pops for two nights. Many local jazz groups appeared, including Ali Yusef’s Trio, Ron Gill and the Manny Williams Quintet, vibraphonist Don Moors, and the ATMA Theatre presenting The Death of Bessie Smith. Nineteen sixty-eight also brought Duke Ellington’s Orchestra for the first time.

Ellington drew an overflow crowd of over 5,000, and it was everything music in the park should be, with a hand-clapping, aisle-dancing, all-ages crowd, picnickers on blankets on the grass, band members signing autographs between sets, and tunes ranging from the expected Ellington hits like “Satin Doll” and “A-Train” to less common fare, including “La Plus Belle Africaine” and “Up Jump.”

Lewis and Ellington became close (he called her “the symbol of Marcus Garvey come alive and blazing into the future of the arts” in his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress), and Ellington returned to Franklin Park every summer through 1972. The Playhouse in the Park series continued until 1978. It resumed, in abbreviated form, in 2003 and continues today. Elma Lewis died on January 1, 2004.

Here is video of the Ellington Orchestra in concert in 1969, playing  “La Plus Belle Africaine,” here a feature for Harry Carney. I wonder if Carney played a similar solo at Franklin Park for his hometown crowd.

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