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.

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June 9, 1954: Jazz Night Born at the Boston Arts Festival

Cover of Storyville LP 311
Jazz at the Boston Arts Festival, STLP 311, 1954. Cover by Burt Goldblatt.

Jazz Night was first included as part of the program during the Third Boston Arts Festival, in 1954. Jazz happily took its place on the festival stage in the Public Garden on the festival’s third night, following Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and preceding Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness.

Jazz Night came about though the lobbying efforts of Father Norman O’Connor, the Jazz Priest from Boston University, George Wein of Storyville, and John McLellan of WHDH radio. They, and their allies, convinced the Brahmin-heavy Board of Trustees to try jazz for one night to see how it went.

They started the night with an erudite panel discussing some flavor or other of “is jazz serious music.” Panelists included O’Connor, McLellan, and Wein, as well as Rod Nordell from the Christian Science Monitor and Prof. Klaus Liepmann, head of the Music Department at MIT. The panel asserted that jazz could indeed be taken seriously.

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June 21, 1961: Langston Hughes Picketed at Boston Arts Fest

The Weary Blues Dust Jacket
Dust jacket–The Weary Blues, published 1926

The Tenth Annual Boston Arts Festival ran from June 8 to 25 in the Public Garden, and it featured Douglas Moore’s opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, and a revival of George M. Cohan’s The Tavern, among other performing arts events. The eighth annual Jazz Night was June 20, and it featured poet Langston Hughes with Jimmy Rushing, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee talking and playing through “The Blues: Words and Music.” They were backed by the Festival Jazz Orchestra, led by drummer Joe MacDonald. There was more jazz on the 21st, a mainstream swing quintet led by saxophonist Billy Marshall with his brother Walter on drums.

Combining words and music was not new to Langston Hughes. In fact, he wrote his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, with the intention of reciting it to music. Hughes finally recorded The Weary Blues in 1958 (MGM E3697), reciting the story of his aging bluesman to music composed by Charles Mingus and played by an all-star band of jazzmen. At the Arts Festival, though, he served as more of a narrator and interpreter, describing the origins of the blues and their place in culture.

Unfortunately, events outside of the Arts Festival detracted from the presence of the renowned poet. A group represented by a South Shore postal worker, with the nebulous name of “The American Institute,” claimed Hughes was “a Communist sympathizer and a danger to the children of Boston.” They planned to picket on Jazz Night.

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June 16, 1958: A Boston Blow-Up at Valli’s

Photo of 76 Warrenton St
In 1958, Valli’s was on the left side at street level

June 16 fell on a Monday, a quiet night in the quiet summer season, when venues closed and musicians and listeners alike headed for the shore. The grand opening of the new Summer Storyville on Cape Cod was two weeks away. But on this Monday, city-bound jazz fans were happily anticipating Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival. Featured was Herb Pomeroy’s Orchestra, tuning up for its debut at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 3—and Gerry Mulligan was on hand as guest soloist.

Not far from the Jazz Night concert, at 76 Warrenton Street, was Valli’s Italian Restaurant, closed as usual on this Monday. Valli’s had opened the previous fall and provided work for a series of trios, including those of Al Vega, Ernie West, and Artie Barsamian. Valli’s also discovered “exotic” dancers, like Zehra the Greek Goddess of Dance, and Sheba, Queen of the Nile (this was at the height of the “baklava bistro” era in downtown Boston).

At 8:30, while Pomeroy’s band was entertaining a crowd of about 15,000 in the Public Garden, all hell broke loose on Warrenton Street. Valli’s blew up.

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June 13, 1955: “How Cool Can You Get?”

The first Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival took place in 1954, and it was quite popular. Apparently the citizens of the town had no problem accepting jazz among the lively arts, so the festival promoters came back in 1955 with another Jazz Night triple feature. A panel discussion started the evening, with Father Norman O’Connor, George Wein, Metronome editor Bill Coss, and Brandeis music professor Harold Shepiro participating. Then came the music, supplied by Ruby Braff’s Quintet (with Wein, Sam Margolis, Stan Wheeler, and Marquis Foster) and Serge Chaloff’s Sextet (the Boston Blow-Up! band with Dick Twardzik finally aboard as pianist).

Robert Taylor was the Boston Herald’s man on the scene, and his review showed he enjoyed himself. He preferred Chaloff’s group over Braff’s. “The ingenuity of Chaloff as a soloist is enormous,” Taylor wrote. He concluded: “As a whole the harmonies of the group are tense and the melodies resourceful and they play with a kind of controlled abandon.”

The Boston Globe covered Jazz Night, too. They sent their reporter, Paul Benzaquin, a future AM radio talk show host whose attempt at humor, a review titled “How Cool Can You Get,” failed badly.

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