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.

Jazz Image of All Night concert poster, 1981

Jazz All Night Concert poster, 1981

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 remained as pillars of the Boston jazz scene for decades to come: Mark Harvey and Arni Cheatham.

Harvey by 1972 was an ordained Methodist minister, serving at Old West Church on Cambridge Street. He was inspired by the jazz ministry of Rev John Gensel, the pastor of St Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City. In 1970, St Peter’s staged its first All Nite Soul concert, which, Harvey later wrote, was “a heady mix of church pageant, late-night vigil, and after-hours jam session.”

In 1971, looking to spark interest in their new Coalition, Harvey, Cheatham et al. decided to try a similar program at Old West.

First Concerts

There wasn’t much publicity for that first Jazz All Night concert. A short blurb ran in the Boston Globe on July 30: “A group of young people who chose to foster jazz instead of rock are sponsoring an All-Night Jazz Celebration beginning tomorrow night at 9 at the Old West Church and concluding with a jazz Mass Sunday morning at 9.” Among the featured groups were the Ronald Ingraham Concert Choir, the James Montgomery Blues Band, Claudio Roditi’s group OsCinco, and Ran Blake. Tickets were three dollars. I have never seen a review of that first night.

Newspaper ad for Jazz All Night, Oct 1972

Newspaper ad for Jazz All Night, October 1972

Things were a little better in 1972. The advertisement shown here ran in the listings for houses of worship, not concert venues. What to make of Jaki Yard? That was Jaki Byard, of course, the victim of a typo at the newspaper’s advertising department.

Cheatham’s sextet, Thing, played that night, as did Harvey’s group. Other early Jazz Coalition stalwarts who performed included singer Matty Mangrum, and Ron Gill with Manny Williams. Tenor saxophonist Ricky Ford, all of 18 at the time, enlivened the early morning hours. Headlining was the duo of saxophonist Marion Brown and trumpeter Leo Smith (not yet known as Wadada Leo Smith), whom, the Globe noted, played “experimental music.”

The Jazz Coalition continued to refine the concert’s organization and presentation. In 1973, it moved to the Church of the Covenant on Newbury Street, which became its permanent home. In 1974, the Jazz All Night concert became a February affair, commencing on the Sunday of the Washington’s Birthday weekend. (“President’s Day” was not yet a term in widespread use.) It made sense to start that night. Most people did not work on the holiday Monday. Sundays were quiet anyway, with few competing events, and the blue laws prohibiting Sunday retail sales still in effect. (They were not repealed until 1983.)

A Winning Formula

The concert format jelled by 1974 as well. It followed a “something for everyone” approach. Concerts included a big band, a few vocalists, and usually a solo pianist or guitarist. You’d hear some Latin, some fusion, some avant-garde, some hard bop. And the opening set often featured a gospel group. What could be more appropriate than that?

Musically, the Jazz All Night concerts leaned toward the modern. Pre-bop styles weren’t featured too often, although pianist Sabby Lewis, who epitomized Boston jazz in the 1940s, made multiple appearances.

Although Jazz All Night primarily supported the musicians on the Boston scene, the organizers always added an out-of-town guest as a headliner. Among them were Howard McGhee, Sheila Jordan, and Al Cohn with Barry Harris.

Musicians were deeply involved in the work of the Jazz Coalition, and some of them played the Jazz All Night concert three, four or even five times. Mark Harvey and Arni Cheatham played many times, of course. Other notable All Night veterans were singer Ron Gill with the Manny Williams Trio, Ran Blake, saxophonist Bill Thompson (now teaching at Berklee), Baird Hersey and his Year of the Ear big band, the Fringe, and saxophonist Ricky Ford, who once traveled all night to hit the bandstand at 5 a.m. Jaki Byard was a multiple returnee, in roles from solo pianist to leader of a 33-member orchestra and chorus.

And who can forget “breakfast for the survivors”? The bleary-eyed fans who made it through the last set were always treated to a pancake breakfast, served in the church hall.

The concert attendance grew in 1977 and 1978, and hit its peak in 1979, when 1,600 souls filled the church pews.

The 12th Jazz All Night Concert in 1981 was celebrated as usual on the Washington’s Birthday weekend, but a threatened transit strike shifted the event forward to Friday night. Among the featured groups that year were the headliners Ed Blackwell and Dewey Redman, Ran Blake, trumpeter Tiger Okoshi, Semenya McCord with the New England Gospel Quartet, the Fringe, Pat Hollenbeck’s Medium Rare Big Band, and vibraphonist Gust Tsilis with Arni Cheatham.

The Last Jazz All Night Concert

There was no concert in 1982: not enough money. But the Jazz Coalition stormed back in 1983 for the thirteenth, and final, Jazz All Night concert. The headliner was Archie Shepp, who got good reviews, but the trio of Makoto Ozone, John Lockwood, and Charli Persip stole the show.

What ended the Jazz All Night concert? For one thing, the jazz climate changed. The concerts were seen as a way to expand the opportunities for jazz musicians working in the Boston area, and there had been some improvement in that. Prospects were better in 1983 than 1971, and perhaps the all-night calling card wasn’t as necessary. And there was always the matter of funding. There was only so much grant or major-donor money available. And finally, people got tired.

It was always a team effort, but Mark Harvey played a leading role in Jazz All Night from its inception. In 1983, he finally called it a night. After a dozen years with the Jazz Coalition, Harvey was burned out, and he gave up his leadership position in the Coalition. Carolyn Kelley succeeded him. After thirteen memorable all-nighters, the organization would pursue a new direction.

To the music. Although Jeff Turton, then of WBUR radio, recorded some of the Jazz All Night concerts, the music is not readily available. A pity. So here is some music made by performers at the 1981 Jazz All Night concert.

First up is Ran Blake, who played solo in 1981, as he does here on ‘Round About Midnight.

Two of the singers who brought that gospel feeling to the Jazz All Night concerts were Semenya McCord and Wanetta Jackson. Nancy Alimansky of Highland Jazz, another of Boston’s distinguished jazz advocates, recorded McCord, Jackson, Paula Elliott, and Jan Forney-Davis harmonizing in 1996. The “Azanian Freedom Song” (sometimes known as “Somewhere There’s a Child a-Crying”) isn’t strictly a gospel tune, but it is a song of liberation steeped in the gospel spirit. It would make a fitting opening at any concert promising Jazz All Night.