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.

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The Second Boston Globe Jazz Festival

In the mid-1950s, the Boston Globe disdained jazz, and in 1955 even openly mocked George Wein’s efforts at Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival. Times change, and in 1966 the Globe hired Wein to produce the first Boston Globe Jazz Festival, at the Boston War Memorial Auditorium (later renamed the Hynes Convention Center).

1967 Boston Globe Jazz Fest program cover
1967 Boston Globe Jazz Festival program cover

It was a success, and Wein was back at it on Jan 20–21, 1967. He brought that old Boston hand, Father Norman O’Connor, along to emcee. Down Beat’s Alan Heineman was there, and though there were high points, his overall reaction was: “lackluster.”

That mood started on Friday night. The Modern Jazz Quartet was “disappointing” and the Dave Brubeck Quartet was “dull.” Even Monk’s Quartet was “pleasant and predictable—to the extent that Monk can ever be called predictable.” By then it was 11:30, and much of the audience departed before the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra played a single note. But their set was sizzling, with superior ensemble blowing and exceptional soloing: “Highlights? Hell, the entire set was a highlight.” But less than half of the capacity crowd remained to hear them.

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October 3: Happy Birthday, George Wein

I can’t possibly do justice to George Wein, born in Boston on this day in 1925, in a single blog post. I can’t even do justice in one post to his 12 years on the Boston scene, the beginning of his 65 years (and counting) as a vital contributor to the world of music.

Photo of George and Joyce Wein
George and Joyce Wein at Newport, ca. 1960

In The Boston Jazz Chronicles, the chapter about Wein is titled “Dynamo,” because he was a man constantly in motion. And it was during the 1950s, when he was the most important figure in Boston jazz, that Wein began his rise to national prominence.

Wein grew up in Newton and graduated from Newton High School (so did Ralph Burns, Serge Chaloff, Hal McKusick, and Roz Cron, all within a few years of each other), and while still in his teens, George was playing piano in the buckets of blood (yes, at Izzy Ort’s!) and sitting in at jam sessions. Then he got drafted. After his discharge in 1946, the jazz odyssey began in earnest.
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August 26, 1960: Jazz Festival at Pleasure Island

The Jazz Festival at Pleasure Island, held August 26-27, 1960, was the last of Boston’s big outdoor festivals, following the North Shore Jazz Festival in 1957 and the Boston Jazz Festival in 1959. Pleasure Island was sometimes called the Second Boston Jazz Festival, mainly because PAMA, George Wein’s new company, produced it. Wein might have been at the helm, but circumstances had changed since August 1959.

Ad for the Jazz Festival at Pleasure Island
Newspaper ad for the Jazz Festival at Pleasure Island, August 1960

The Boston Jazz Festival had not been a financial success, and Wein planned changes for 1960. He had a suburban location in mind (think “parking”), and though a three-day festival at the Weymouth Fairgrounds was proposed, the final decision was for a two-day affair at Pleasure Island, an amusement park in Wakefield. Its outdoor theater seated about 7,000.

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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 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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Cape Cod Jazz: Pretty Hot for May

It’s a Cape Code two-fer for the month of May. On May 24, 1980, the first Cape Cod Jazz Festival opened, while on May 25, 1914, pianist Marie Marcus, a friend indeed to Cape jazz, was born in Roxbury.

The Cape Cod Jazz Fest was the brainchild of Jack Bradley, the president of the Cape Cod Jazz Society, an organization he helped form in 1977. Bradley claimed it was the largest aggregation of jazz talent ever assembled on the Cape, and it is hard to argue with that assessment. For two days they held forth at Dunfey’s Hyannis Resort. Amy Lee covered the festival for the Christian Science Monitor.
Cape Cod Jazz Fest AdvertOn Saturday the 24th, the New Black Eagle Jazz Band with special guest Dick Wetmore led off, followed by Roomful of Blues. In the evening, Dick Johnson’s band (not yet called Swing Shift) preceded Buddy Rich and his thunderous 16-piece orchestra.

The afternoon of Sunday the 25th was given over to a tribute to Bobby Hackett, who lived his last five years on the Cape, passing in 1976. The Marie Marcus Quartet played first, followed by tributes by Lou Colombo and Dick Wetmore, then Scott Hamilton’s Quartet, and finally a Bobby Hackett Memorial group led by Doc Cheatham and Vic Dickenson, with pianist Chuck Folds and drummer Ernie Hackett, Bobby’s son. The session ran a whopping four and a half hours.

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May 21, 1950: Boston’s First Jazz Festival

Boston’s first outdoor jazz festival, a five-set event on the Boston Common, took place as part of the Mid-Century Boston Jubilee.

In May 1950, the City of Boston held a four-day extravaganza, the Mid-Century Boston Jubilee, to prove to the nation, and perhaps to itself, that the city still had a pulse. Every facet of the local economy was tanking, and Mayor John Hynes and the business community needed to talk up the city’s prospects for job growth, prosperity… the usual.

The captains of industry bankrolling the Jubilee knew that a good party needs plenty of music, and the citizens of the olde towne sampled everything from the Gillette Safety Razor Company Glee Club to the Boston English High School Band to Louie Prima’s big band. The Jubilee’s Big Deal was the Saturday night baked bean supper, served with ham and brown bread on long banquet tables set up on the Common. “10,000 Sit Down to Baked Beans on Common; 30,000 Turned Away” said the Globe’s headline the next day. Al Bandera’s Garden City Band played through dinner, and Burl Ives strolled through the crowd, reprising his popular hit, “Gimme Cracked Corn and I Don’t Care” to great applause.

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