For many area jazz fans in the 1980s and 1990s, the Boston Jazz Society meant one thing: the Jazz Barbecue. It was the Society’s biggest and best-known event. The annual August blast started in the mid-1970s and continued into the early 2000s. If Boston jazz had a community-building event, this was it: all ages, multi-cultural, musicians of all abilities, just plain fans. Everybody I know who made a habit of attending remembers those afternoons warmly, if hazily.
The Boston Jazz Society was a non-profit organization that incorporated in spring 1973. Its officers and board of directors were all volunteers. Their purpose was two-fold. First, to assist young musicians by offering financial support, and second, to help working musicians by producing concerts. The concerts, in turn, would raise money for scholarships. Doing these things, they reasoned would help keep jazz alive in the public eye. They produced their first concert at Paul’s Mall in June 1973.
The BJS adopted that phrase, “keep jazz alive,” as their slogan. After a few years, though, they gave it a more positive slant: “Jazz Is Alive!” They put it on pin-back buttons, t-shirts, and the masthead of their newsletter.
There were more club concerts in the mid-seventies, and the Boston Jazz Society raised enough money to make its first scholarship award in 1975. And that year, saxophonist Sonny Carrington, the Society’s third president, thought of a way to bring the student musicians and the working musicians together in a casual setting.
Jazz Barbecues, Mid-1970s to Mid-1980s
A birthday party sparked the idea for the jazz barbecue. It took place in Sonny Carrington’s back yard, on August 4, 1975, the tenth birthday of his daughter, Terri Lyne. Of course, there were musicians playing. Picture it: nice summer day, friends, food and drink, live music… I can almost see the light bulb blinking above Carrington’s head as he imagined the possibilities.
At first the barbecue was not directly linked to the scholarship fund. It was a jazz appreciation day. “Join us in our efforts to show our appreciation to the musicians who have contributed their time and support in helping us “keep jazz alive,” said one early event invitation. Nor were the first barbecues public events. Numbered invitations were mailed and RSVPs requested. BJS members were of course invited, and many musicians, and sundry clubowners, advertisers, and members of the media. People mingled.
The first Jazz Barbecue took place in Carrington’s back yard in Medford. The next two were held in the Woburn backyard of Jimmy Hayes, one of the Society’s charter members. For the third one, in 1978, Hayes commandeered his neighbors’ backyards in order to accommodate the growing crowd. That year, 300 people attended.
The musicians ate chicken and burgers and played through the afternoon. It was a non-stop jam session. It was the year of the trumpeters in 1977, with five taking their turns: Ray Copeland, Greg Hopkins, Stanton Davis, Longineu Parsons, and Milt Ward. Saxophonists? Bill Pierce and Bill Thompson. Pianists? Sid Simmons and Frank Wilkins. Bassists? Tony Teixeira, Boots Maleson, and Jerome Harris. Drummers? Alan Dawson, Harold Layne, and Terri Lyne Carrington. This happened every year.
The first of the special guests arrived in 1977. Kenny Burrell, in town for a gig, came by with his guitar. He enjoyed himself, loved the vibe, and said he wanted to schedule something in Boston for the same time the next year. That didn’t quite work out, but an equally special guest, pianist Tommy Flanagan, dropped by in 1978.
The event was just too big for Hayes’s backyard, and in 1979, the BJS tried its first public space, Romuva Park in Brockton. They did not find a suitable site in 1980, and canceled the Jazz Barbecue altogether. They still didn’t have a good site in 1981, but rather than skip the event again, they found a bigger backyard, that of Society treasurer Sylvia Templeton. That year the BJS started a tradition of singling out a musician for special recognition by honoring the Boston jazz eminence, pianist Sabby Lewis.
Jazz Barbecue and Festival at Curry College
The search for an ideal site continued in 1982, at the Sons of Italy Park in Brockton. I haven’t identified the 1983 location yet. In 1984 the event moved to the Meadowbrook School in Weston. There was one more no-site cancellation in 1985, and finally, in 1986, the BJS found stability at Curry College in Milton. That location was home for eight years.
The Curry College site had a major selling point in that it could accommodate a bigger audience, although people still had to buy tickets in advance. A bigger audience might translate into more money for the scholarship fund, and later event flyers always made clear that proceeds benefitted that program. Even the name got bigger. It was now the Annual Jazz Barbecue and Festival.
The barbecue was still a day to honor the local jazz musicians, and a day for the students to play with them. And there was a moment of silence to remember those who died in the past year.
Something else happened in 1986, too: out-of-town artists appearing as headliners. As with their club concerts, local groups shared the stage and filled out the rhythm sections. So, for instance, in 1988, Art Farmer and Clifford Jordan shared the bill with Wanetta Jackson and Stan Strickland. In 1990, Jimmy Smith headlined, and so did the local Hammond B-3 organist, George “Fingers” Pearson. In 1993, Roy Haynes shared the bill with singer Eula Lawrence, who had first performed at a BJS event in 1973. But whoever it was, the afternoon still ended with a jam session.
In the 1990s at Stonehill College
After eight years at Curry College, the party moved to Stonehill College in North Easton for Barbecue #18 in 1994. More growth: it was no longer reservations only, there were gate sales, too. And bigger crowds meant that a catering company now replaced volunteers at the grills barbecuing the chickens.
During the Stonehill years, the best of the local jazz artists were prominent as headliners. Mili Bermejo (a 1982 scholarship recipient) topped the bill in 1996, the Woodwind Summit with Bill Pierce, Andy McGhee, and Donald Harrison (a 1981 scholarship recipient) in 1997, and Kendrick Oliver’s New Life Orchestra in 1999.
Student ensembles, including scholarship awardees and honorable mentions had always been a feature of BJS events, including the barbecues. These Stonehill barbecues made a point of featuring them prominently in their own sets: Chiara Civello in 1996, Felipe Salles in 1998, Jaleel Shaw in 1999.
If the Boston Jazz Society has a lasting legacy, it is the scholarship program. They awarded about 35 scholarships over the years, including to such future luminaries as Branford Marsalis, Makoto Ozone, and Donny McCaslin.
The Jazz Barbecue remained at Stonehill through the silver anniversary year in 2001. Pianist John Hicks lead a quartet called the New York Powerhouse Ensemble. A student ensemble with scholarship winner Walter Smith III, was also on hand. (Alto saxophonist Smith is now the Chair of the Berklee Woodwinds Department.) Three members of the local community were honored for their long dedication to jazz: saxophonist Bill Thompson, drummer Harold Layne, and radio host Eric Jackson.
I can find no evidence of a Jazz Barbecue in 2002, or any time thereafter. The Society’s activity slowed down that year, perhaps because president Ed Henderson took time off for health reasons. Then in 2003, longtime vice-president Vin Haynes died.
The last scholarship, to the best of my knowledge, was awarded to Esperanza Spalding in 2005. There were plans for an August 2006 event at Scullers in place of the Jazz Barbecue, but it never came off. The Boston Jazz Society was winding down. It filed its last annual report with the Secretary of State’s office in 2012. Henderson finally turned out the lights in 2014. He donated all his files, photos, and memorabilia to the Archives at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2015.
A few years ago, Bill Pierce, who knows all about the Jazz Barbecue, told me this. “The Boston Jazz Society felt like a neighborhood—your aunt was in it. Your cousin was in it. It was almost folksy. And the picnic! That was so cool. It would be great if we could do that again, but there’s no organization that can pull people together like that now. Maybe the pendulum will swing back.”
One can always hope.