In the 1970s, Bostonians enjoyed a welcome one-night respite from their long winter blues: the Jazz All Night Concert. This twelve-hour music marathon, held in February at the Church of the Covenant in the Back Bay, brought the jazz congregation together for a night of great music during some difficult and racially charged years.
The Jazz Coalition was the organizing force behind the Jazz All Night concert. Formed in July 1971, this non-profit advocacy group had two goals. The first was pragmatic: to help area musicians find places to play. The second was more ambitious: to bring together like-minded souls in a “jazz community”—a new idea in Boston in 1971. It called on musicians, educators, the media, venue owners, fans—everybody—to come together to create an atmosphere in which jazz could be respected and sustained.
Two of the Jazz Coalition’s founders and prime movers remain as pillars of the Boston jazz scene today: Mark Harvey and Arni Cheatham.
On May 19-20, Baird Hersey and his little big band, The Year of the Ear, recorded tracks that would be released on the 1978 LP, Lookin’ for That Groove (Arista Novus AN 3004). It was the group’s second recording, and first on a major label.
Apart from being called “eclectic,” Year of the Ear defied categorization, and the descriptions of it were fanciful. The Real Paper published my favorite, in 1976, when Mike Baron called Hersey’s “radically different” band “an avant-garde space funk jazz group” that could “hit more strange and wonderful sounds in one tune than most bands hit in a year.”
Guitarist and composer Baird Hersey arrived in Boston in 1974 with a broad range of musical interests and influences, a grab-bag that included Bill Dixon, Duke Ellington, György Ligeti, Carl Ruggles, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown. He studied ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University and composition at Bennington College, and led a rock band called Swamp Gas in the early 1970s. He formed The Year of the Ear in 1975.
This December 21 witnessed the 41st annual Aardvark Christmas Concert, an event that was held for the first time on this day in 1973. The concert is a tradition in Boston, always well attended—this year they ran out of programs.
Aardvark itself upholds two concert-night traditions it started in 1973—that the program be musically arresting, and that the night benefit a good cause. This year Aardvark did both, again, in most pleasing fashion. It performed the entire Ellington-Strayhorn Nutcracker Suite, and I can’t recall anybody doing that in Boston, and it donated generously to the Pine Street Inn. ‘Tis the season.
The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra is of course the chief musical preoccupation of trumpeter, composer, and arranger Mark Harvey. He was already something of a Christmas music veteran in 1973; for three years he’d been leading the Boston Brass Ensemble, a group he organized to play at the city’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony and other holiday events. Aardvark grew out of the Boston Brass Ensemble. It added a rhythm section to the brass group, and it expanded the repertoire into the realms of Harvey’s interests, big-band and free jazz.
On this date and leading up to it, the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra learned a few things about improvisation from one of the masters, Jaki Byard.
Mark Harvey was a man of many facets. He started playing jazz music in Boston as soon as he arrived in 1969, led the Jazz Coalition from its inception in 1971, directed the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra since its formation in 1973, and taught jazz studies at MIT from 1980. He was as close to the center of the small world that was Boston jazz in 1986 as a person could be.
Closer still to the center of jazz, not only in Boston but elsewhere, was Jaki Byard, who in the late 1940s and 1950s worked with every modern and progressive musician in Boston, from Sam Rivers to Charlie Mariano to Gig Gryce to Herb Pomeroy. Nat Hentoff called Jaki Byard “a pervasive influence on nearly every young Boston musician who was interested in discovering new jazz routes.” Then had come the years with Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, and Roland Kirk. In 1969 he returned to Boston and the New England Conservatory of Music at the invitation of Gunther Schuller.