The Troy Street Observer

The Boston Days of Charlie Bourgeois

Charlie Bourgeois, who was George Wein’s director of public relations and right-hand man for over 60 years, died at the age of 94 on January 26, but I’ve read very little about it.  Bourgeois was active on the Boston jazz scene even before Wein hired him at Storyville in 1951. Two events in particular stand out.

Photo of Pee Wee Russell and Charlie Bourgeois
Pee Wee Russell and Charlie Bourgeois at Newport, sometime in the sixties. Photo Newport Jazz Festival.

The first was his staging of “a recital of contemporary music” at the John Hancock Hall in October 1949 with the trio of Mary Lou Williams and the sextet of Lennie Tristano, which included Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. It was Tristano’s first Boston appearance, and the concert program attempted to prepare the listeners for Tristano’s way-out music: “Tristano seeks optimum conditions and an intelligent audience for the performance of his music. It all may seem strange to the untrained ear but the music concepts that Tristano conveys may be assimilated by all who are eager to hear. Contemplation is required in the appreciation of any art.” Clearly, Bourgeois wasn’t sure that the Boston audience was as ready for the sound of modern jazz as he himself was.

The second was Boston’s first jazz festival, on May 21, 1950, part of the Mid-Century Boston Jubilee. Bourgeois produced it, at the Parkman Bandstand on the Boston Common. Five bands worked their way through the history of jazz. They were Frankie Newton’s All Star Orchestra, singer Alice Ross Groves with her trio, Nat Pierce’s Orchestra, the Charlie Mariano Boptet featuring Serge Chaloff, and Ruby Braff’s Quintet.

There were no jazz festivals anywhere yet, and the whole idea was so unusual that Billboard called it a “jazz festival,” in quotes, in their May 6 issue. No doubt Charlie’s experience proved useful in planning the first Newport festival in 1954.

Bourgeois produced at least a half-dozen of the early sessions for Storyville Records in 1953-55, and he assisted in producing most of the live sessions recorded at the Storyville club for other labels. He also arranged Teddi King’s audition with George Shearing, and he subsequently hired her to work with his Quintet, the only singer to do so.

Bourgeois provided other services to the local jazz community, organizing benefit concerts, acting as Storyville’s liaison with the Teenage Jazz Club (Storyville was the TJC’s clubhouse), and assembling a significant exhibit of jazz artifacts in summer 1959 at the Boston Public Library that included one of Bix’s cornets, loaned by his family.

Bourgeois went to New York with Wein in 1960, and over time became something of a behind-the-scenes legend in the concert and festival promotion business. He preferred life behind the scenes, I think. I called him in 2006 to request an interview for The Boston Jazz Chronicles. “You did great work in Boston,” I said. “You staged the first jazz festival, and produced records by Sidney Bechet, and sent jazz bands to entertain in the military hospitals. You should share your story in this book.” He declined. “Talk to George,” he said. “You gotta talk to George.”

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