Boston’s first jazz festival, a five-set event on the Boston Common, took place on May 21, 1950, 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.
Finally, on Sunday, May 21, Charles J. Bourgeois presented a Jazz Festival at the Parkman Bandstand, featuring five bands playing a history of American Jazz. They were Frankie Newton’s All Star Orchestra, two of whom were trombonist Dick LeFave and drummer Joe Booker; singer Alice Ross Groves with her trio; Nat Pierce’s Orchestra; the Charlie Mariano Boptet, a small group drawn from Pierce’s Orchestra, with Serge Chaloff added; and Ruby Braff’s Quintet. These were among the finest musicians Boston had to offer. The emcee for Boston’s first jazz festival was Lindy Miller of WBZ radio.
The weather probably kept people away, as it was an unseasonably cold night. Dave Chapman, of the Pierce Orchestra, recalled being the only one in the saxophone section not wearing a topcoat, and all Alice Ross Groves could remember was the cold wind whipping through the bandstand. The weather certainly kept the press away—there were no reviews, and hardly even any mentions. But this was an important event, a “famous first,” and the experience came in handy in 1954 when Charlie Bourgeois, then working for George Wein, helped stage the first Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival, the next attempt to stage jazz at a big public outdoor event.
On this night, though, only the performing musicians were outdoors. Everybody else was listening to Sabby Lewis at Wally’s Paradise, or to Rex Stewart with Big Sid Catlett at the Hi-Hat.