The Troy Street Observer

August 21, 1959: Starts Today! The Boston Jazz Festival

Boston festival program cover
The First Annual Boston Jazz Festival–program cover

Years before aging rockers staged concerts at Fenway Park, it was home to the First Annual Boston Jazz Festival, on August 21-23, 1959. It was yet another of George Wein’s endeavors, produced by his Newport Jazz Festival operation, and cosponsored by the Sheraton Corporation, then based in Boston. The Newport/Sheraton partnership had already produced the Midwest Jazz Festival in French Lick, Indiana, and the Toronto Jazz Festival that summer.

Fenway presented several logistical problems, and configuring the stage relative to the fixed seating was one. The stage was erected on the infield, between first and second base, facing the grandstand on the first base side. An immense blue and white canvas tarp provided the backdrop around the stage. About 11,000 seats could be used, and if it rained, people in the box seats could retreat to the cover of the grandstand.

Then there were the stadium acoustics. To have sound bouncing off the Green Monster and rolling back in on the grandstand would have been a disaster, and Wein probably hired Bill Hanley, the sound man at Newport since 1957, to set up Fenway sound system.

Friday night was a letdown, with attendance at about 5,000 and little of the music catching fire. Both John McLellan in the Traveler and Father Norman O’Connor in the Globe gave high marks to the steady old pros, Pee Wee Russell and Vic Dickenson. McLellan thought Monk’s music provided the other Friday highlight; it was his first visit to Boston since 1950. Ray Charles and Mark Murphy were disappointments, and Dakota Staton, noted O’Connor, “added just enough phrasing and beat to give you the feeling that she could sing some good jazz, if she would just try.”

Saturday was better, with a crowd of about 8,500. McLellan praised Dick Johnson’s alto work with Herb Pomeroy’s band, and Horace Silver’s new trumpeter, Blue Mitchell, for his work on Silver’s ballad, “Peace.” McLellan also remarked that with the very competent Joe Morello and Gene Wright alongside, Dave Brubeck seemed relaxed, enabling the quartet to achieve a lightness often absent in the past. And when the night’s closer, Sarah Vaughan, was a no-show, Brubeck’s quartet came back for another set.

Another 8,500 people attended on Sunday. Good sets by Toshiko Akiyoshi and Ruby Braff led to a standout set by Dizzy Gillespie, with O’Connor commenting that “Gillespie showed again that he has technique to throw away and a warmth to fill the whole Fenway Park.” McLellan added: “Dizzy, it seems to me, has never had a better small group. Nor played better trumpet himself. Many modernists, who pick those fast tempos, seem to spend most of their time just trying to keep up. Diz makes them swing.” The Ellington Orchestra closed the proceedings, and McLellan found them uncharacteristically unmusical.

Despite first-time flaws, Both O’Connor and McLellan thought the three days were an encouraging first step, and both looked forward to 1960. “As I left Fenway Park,” concluded McLellan, “I thought I heard an echoing voice in the concrete tunnel say: ‘Wait ‘til next year’.”

But there would not be a “next year,” at least not in Boston. There would be a two-day festival in suburban Wakefield in 1960, but it wouldn’t be the Second Annual Boston Jazz Festival. We’re still waiting for that to happen.

Here’s Horace Silver’s 1959 group with Blue Mitchell, and “Peace.”

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