Photo of Elma Lewis and Duke Ellington

Elma Lewis and Duke Ellington. Photo Franklin Park Coalition.

The Duke Ellington Orchestra visited the Playhouse in the Park for the first time on July 22, 1968. It was the high point of an exciting summer in what had once been a neglected corner of Franklin Park.

In any listing of all the Boston-area places in the Great Outdoors that featured summertime jazz, Franklin Park in Dorchester must be high on list. Elma Lewis began the performing arts series in Franklin Park in 1966, and that started it. But the arts series was only one of her many activities. She was a teacher, community activist, social critic, and one of the most important figures in black cultural life in Boston during the second half of the twentieth century.

Lewis was an early friend of efforts to restore Franklin Park, and in 1966 she organized volunteers to clean up a dilapidated area and build a stage there. This modest theater was the beginning of the Playhouse in the Park, and for two months that summer Lewis presented musicians, actors, and dancers of all genres and styles.

It only got better. In 1967, Odetta came to the Playhouse in the Park for the first time, as did Babatunde Olatunji with his stage full of drummers and dancers. In 1968, successful fundraising brought a bounty of music to the park, including repeat performances by Odetta and Olatunji’s Drums of Africa, and the Boston Pops for two nights. Oscar Brown Jr and his social commentary drew a big crowd. Many local jazz musicians, singers, and dancers performed, including Ali Yusef’s Trio, Ron Gill and the Manny Williams Quintet, tapper Jimmy Slyde, vibraphonist Don Moors with singer Gwen Michaels, and the ATMA Theatre presenting The Death of Bessie Smith. Nineteen sixty-eight also brought Duke Ellington’s Orchestra for the first time.

Ellington drew an overflow crowd of over 5,000, and it was everything music in the park should be. There was a hand-clapping, aisle-dancing, all-ages crowd; picnickers on blankets on the grass; band members signing autographs between sets. They played tunes ranging from the expected Ellington hits like “Satin Doll” and “A-Train” to less common fare, including “La Plus Belle Africaine” and “Up Jump.”

Lewis and Ellington became close (he called her “the symbol of Marcus Garvey come alive and blazing into the future of the arts” in his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress), and Ellington returned to Franklin Park every summer through 1972. The Playhouse in the Park series continued until 1978. It resumed, in abbreviated form, in 2003. Elma Lewis died on January 1, 2004.