George Wein didn’t say it in 1966, the year of the first Boston Globe Jazz Festival, but he did a few years later. “This is my hometown,” he said, “and regardless of how well one does elsewhere, there is a special need to succeed in the area where a person was born and raised.” George acquitted himself admirably that year.
Although Wein was running festivals all over the country by then, he hadn’t staged one in Boston since 1960. He wanted another shot at it. In 1965, Wein and his publicist Harry Paul visited the Globe to continue discussions begun at Newport that summer.
The Globe, for its part, wasn’t much beyond dipping its toe into the water when it came to popular culture. It had a long history with the fine arts, but jazz? Not so much. Like the man said, though, the times were a-changin’ in the mid-1960s, and Boston’s institutions were starting to pay attention. Tom Winship, the paper’s new editor, gave the festival his full support. So long story short, the Boston Globe Jazz Festival was a go for January 14-15, 1966.
Like Wein’s other festivals, Boston’s would be a single-site, daily-admission event. Unlike Wein’s other extravaganzas, though, this one would be indoors, in the dead of winter. City residents applauded this respite from the winter blues. But the site, the new 5,800-seat War Memorial Auditorium on Boylston Street, had its drawbacks. (The city renamed the auditorium the Hynes in 1970; a relief to those who disliked that “War Memorial” handle). The acoustics were poor, and the sound system prone to problems. And the auditorium was built as a convention center, not a concert hall, and even the Globe’s own reporters called it “cavernous.”
To be fair to the producers, though, there weren’t many other choices. The acoustically superior Music Hall (the Wang Center) only seated 4,300. The Boston Garden seated over 15,000, but it was an even bigger cavern than the Memorial Auditorium, and, as Billy Joel once quipped, “even hockey sounds bad there.” Besides, Wein didn’t think he could sell that many seats.
To lure the people out on cold winter nights, Wein called on his stable of bankable stars, most of whom had been with him since his Storyville days—Getz, Gillespie, Brubeck, Ellington. The lineup featured artists in the modern jazz mainstream popular at the time. Exceptions were his own Newport All-Stars with their swing-and-standards repertoire, the beyond-category Duke Ellington Orchestra, and Benny Goodman. More on him later.
Wein’s approach had its detractors. Echoing an opinion often heard about Newport, critics declared that the program too safe, and it ignored the music’s younger musicians and more recent stylistic innovations. Guilty as charged; Wein did what he thought he had to do to establish the festival. And although he remained ever mindful of gate receipts, in later years he opened things up—by 1969, he had Roland Kirk playing with Frank Zappa.
On Stage Friday, January 14
The mid-winter gathering of the friends and fans of Newport commenced on Friday night, with the Rev Alvin Kershaw of Emmanuel Church presiding as emcee. It was a full house, and press accounts took note of the stomping, boisterous crowd. The musicians picked up on that energy all night long and delivered solid performances.
The show opened with the contrasting tenor saxophones of Sonny Stitt and Zoot Sims, backed by the trio of Toshiko Akiyoshi, Steve Swallow and Alan Dawson. (Toshiko’s then-husband, Charlie Mariano, listened from the wings but did not play.) The Dave Brubeck Trio followed. Although fans expected to hear the full Quartet, it was reduced by one when saxophonist Paul Desmond was unable to make his travel connections to Boston. For the Globe’s Bill Buchanan, the improvised trio’s strong set was the surprise of the night.
Led by cornetist Ruby Braff, clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, and saxophonist Bud Freeman, the relaxed swing of Wein’s Newport All-Stars closed the first half of the program. Dizzy Gillespie’s Quintet with James Moody opened the second half, followed by a much-anticipated set by the Stan Getz Quartet with Gary Burton and Roy Haynes.
The Friday finale was a tenor blowing session reminiscent of Jazz at the Philharmonic. Moody, Sims, Stitt, Freeman and Getz shared the stage, supported by Toshiko’s trio. Such sessions are sometimes less than the sum of the parts, but we don’t know if that was true here—the local press corps had all departed by then to file their stories.
I find it an interesting sign of the times that Freeman, at 61, was the oldest musician on stage that night. Although the baby boomers were right around the corner, the jazz mainstream was alive and well in 1966.
On Stage Saturday, January 15
If Friday was a night to explore the sound of modern jazz, Saturday offered more of a look back. It was another standing-room crowd, noticeably older. Ellington’s Orchestra opened the evening, minus the Duke. His son Mercer led the band in his place. The Globe’s Ernie Santosuosso reported the orchestra added “class and distinction” to the proceedings, which I interpret to mean it was a lackluster performance. Joe Williams sang four numbers with the band, but they were Duke’s tunes, not his; Buchanan wondered if you heard the real Joe Williams if you heard a set that didn’t include “Everyday I Have the Blues.” It’s an instance of being trapped by audience expectations: sing your hits whether you want to or not. Getz faced similar expectations the night before with playing bossa nova. (He played “Desafinado,” and skipped “Ipanema.”)
Herbie Mann’s high-energy group, sandwiched between swing-era titans Ellington and Goodman, seemed a bit out of place with its unusual (for the time) flute-and-trombone front line.
The most hyped performance of the festival, by Benny Goodman, ended the evening, and his loyal fans filled the hall. Said one concertgoer from Jamaica Plain who skipped the Friday show, “We used to see Benny Goodman when he had his big band. This reminds us of the old days. This is the kind of jazz we like.” And a younger college-aged swing stalwart added, “The younger generation is not slipping. We’re not all beatniks.”
Yet Goodman made few new friends. He brought a journeyman trio with him, and borrowed Cootie Williams from Duke’s band for part of the set to fill out the advertised quintet. “At times, Goodman seemed worried about catching a train to New York. He looked at his watch an annoying number of times, but between his clock watching, he played well,” groused Buchanan. Goodman trotted out crowd-pleasers like “Avalon” and “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”
George Wein wrote less than two pages about the Globe festival in his memoir, Myself Among Others. Much of what he did write, though, was about how difficult it was to work with Goodman, and how that experience was his one bad memory of an otherwise good weekend.
A Boston Jazz Milestone
The Boston Globe Jazz Festival accomplished what it needed to in 1966. It proved there was an audience—the house sold out both nights, a better than expected turnout. George Wein scored a success in his hometown. The Globe’s first venture helped to establish itself as a player on the popular entertainment scene. Finally, the two-night winter interlude pumped needed energy into the Boston scene. “No question that Boston is still a jazz city,” concluded the Globe’s Buchanan. The partners declared victory and soon announced dates for a 1967 festival.
Wein produced four more Boston Globe Jazz Festivals at the Hynes before the newspaper ended the event after 1970. There was a disappointing effort in 1976, produced by Fred Taylor. The Globe again retained Wein’s organization in 1978, and he staged an annual festival through 1996. Those festivals, developed along the lines of Newport/New York, were quite different from the 1960s events. They’ll be the subject of a later post.