Monthly Archives: December 2012

Getting the Word Out-Easier Said Than Done

jazzlogo2 In 1983 there were numerous local radio shows that featured jazz. WGBH was the front runner. Ron Della Chiesa was host of Music America, an afternoon program which played a broad range of American jazz.

Ron Della Chiesa

Ron Della Chiesa

Ron was an avid supporter of the local jazz scene. In addition to inviting visiting jazz performers as guests on his show, he constantly championed local musicians and frequently interviewed them on air.

Eric Jackson

Eric Jackson

Eric Jackson started broadcasting at WGBH in 1981 and by 1983 his show Eric in the Evening had a large following. The show’s theme song was “Peace” by pianist Horace Silver as performed by Tommy Flanagan. Like Ron he fervently supported the local jazz scene by promoting concerts and gigs and doing countless interviews of local musicians.

Steve Schwartz

Steve Schwartz

Starting in 1990 Steve Schwartz  hosted Jazz From Studio Four, which  aired one or two nights a weekend.

Tony Cennamo

Tony Cennamo

The major competition for jazz at WGBH was Tony Cennamo on WBUR. In 1983 he was broadcasting from 10pm to 2am. Like his counterparts Tony was an enthusiastic promoter of local jazz.

One of my first strategies was to meet these  major jazz radio personalities whose support was critical. Mario invited each of them separately to the restaurant where we talked about the importance of a suburban concert series. They agreed to help; they consistently mentioned our concerts on air and often invited our performers to their shows for live interviews. I was frequently a guest myself and got pretty comfortable sitting in a studio wearing headphones, answering questions, and telling stories. In the summer Eric, Ron and Tony were co-hosts at a major summer event, but more about that later.

another important  goal was to personally contact the jazz columnists/critics at the Globe, the Herald and the Phoenix, as well as the individuals responsible for listing events. As a non-profit organization, we didn’t have to pay for listings or PSAs (public service announcements.) Even so there was no guarantee that the paper would include our listing. Whenever one of our concerts was selected as the “Hot Pick” in the Globe Calendar I was thrilled because that usually meant a good audience for the night. After our first season I even brought a cake from Mario’s bakery to the editor of the Globe Calendar to thank him for promoting our events. Without all this help Highland Jazz would never have survived.

And yet given all this support why was Highland Jazz such a well-kept secret, not only in 1983 but even as the years continued? I have always felt it was location, location, location. Had we been in downtown Boston I think the story would have been quite different. And of course our events did not take place in a jazz club where people could drink, talk a little, hang out etc. Sitting in a hall is a different experience; there is no doubt about that and it may be less appealing to some  jazz enthusiasts.

Where are they now?

Ron Della Chiesa has a weekly Sunday program, Strictly Sinatra, on WPLM-FM. It features five hours of Frank Sinatra. According to Ron, this “ isn’t even enough time.” He has written a memoir Radio My Way. He did an interesting NPR interview in March 2012, in which he talks about some of the interesting performers he has met and interviewed.

Tony Cennamo passed away in June 2010. Here is article that Steve Ellman from WBUR wrote about him.

WGBH has now downsized Eric Jackson’s popular weeknight show to a cumulative nine hours on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights.

At the same time the station canceled outright the weekly show hosted by Steve Schwartz. I am including two links in case you would like to read more about WGBH’s programming decisions about Eric Jackson and Steve Schwartz  In my opinion what WGBH has done will negatively impact the success of jazz programs especially for non-profit organizations like Highland Jazz.

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Highland Jazz Takes Off!

jazzlogo2  After the initial indoor concert with Makoto Ozone and Phil Wilson I changed venues and moved around the corner in Newton Highlands to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. At best the hall accommodated 100 people. It was pretty short on comfort; there were folding chairs which had to be set up before each concert and then put away at the end of the night. Often members of the audience helped out by carrying chairs down to the basement. When the weather turned cold the radiators clanged in accompaniment to the music. And then there was the piano…an old upright with slow action and mediocre sound.

The 1983-84 season featured many of the best musicians in the Boston area. Our goal was to bring  jazz concerts to an audience that might not frequent downtown Boston jazz clubs. At the same time we wanted to offer Boston area and New England jazz musicians a new forum for their music. Boston had a tremendous resource of exceptional players and I was determined to give them the opportunity to be heard and appreciated.

November brought the return of the Gray Sargent Trio at the unbelievable admission price of $5.00. How times have changed.

In December we presented the James Williams Trio with James on piano, Alan Dawson on drums and John Lockwood on bass.

James Williams and John Lockwood

James Williams and John Lockwood

Here is a brief clip of James and John from a recording in 1996. (Jazzhistorydatabase).

James was teaching at Berklee at the time and didn’t have a car. I agreed to pick him up near the school and to drive him to the gig- something I would only have done that first year. I remember his being quiet and soft-spoken, saying very little during the ride to Newton. This was the only time Williams performed for Highland Jazz. A year later he moved to New York City and started to appear with many jazz greats including Art Farmer, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Tom Harrell, Bobby Hutcherson, Ray Brown, Tony Williams, Kenny Burrell, and Elvin Jones.

Alan Dawson

Alan Dawson

This concert was the first of countless appearances by drummer Alan Dawson at Highland Jazz events. What I remember most about Alan is the constant smile on his face whenever he played. I asked him about it once and he answered “Why not smile; I’m having so much fun.”

I never found out from James after the concert what he thought about the piano; someone else drove him home. But having heard how it sounded I vowed never to use it again. I would either have to forget about hiring a pianist or find some other solution to replace that rather sad upright.

Where are they now?

Both James and Alan are gone now.  James died in 2004 at the age of 53. Alan passed away at 66 in 1996.

John Lockwood is an Associate Professor at the Berklee College of Music and a member of the Jazz Studies department at the New England Conservatory. (www..berklee.edu/people/john-lockwood). During the past 30 years he has been a frequent performer at Highland Jazz concerts.

Can you have momentum when everything is free?

jazzlogo2  At the end of the summer Mario was convinced that jazz was making a comeback.  He wanted to continue the series.

“So, we have momentum.  We should plan more concerts,” he declared.

I disagreed.

“Momentum is when people pay to attend these concerts. That’s not the case with us,” I replied.

I reminded him that everything in the summer concert series had been free, including the food.  He explained that he would be willing to sponsor an indoor series.  Of course that added numerous complications.  In order to attract an audience I  felt that we would need to schedule concerts on Saturday nights. We would also have to find a venue, pay the musicians at least union wages for a weekend gig and charge admission to cover our costs.  Mario promised to make up any deficit if the concerts failed to break even.  He would also continue to provide free refreshments.  I agreed to run the operation and to continue to volunteer my time and effort.

Mario had his lawyer draw up  papers to register Highland Jazz, inc. as a 501-c3 non-profit organization. According to the articles of incorporation Mario would be President and Treasurer and I would serve as Clerk.  The mission statement outlined our goal of exposing the audience to a variety of jazz styles including Dixieland, Bebop, Latin and Swing. The American songbook would be an integral part of our programming. Jazz is, after all, America’s original music.

Makoto Ozone Sept. 1983

Makoto Ozone Sept. 1983

I wanted to make a big impact with the first indoor concert. At the time there was a lot of buzz about a 21-year-old Japanese pianist, Makoto Ozone. He and trombonist Phil Wilson, a Berklee faculty member, had recently released an album entitled Phil Wilson and Makoto Ozone Live! At the Berklee Performance Center.

Phil Wilson Sept.1983

Phil Wilson Sept.1983

I called Phil and he agreed to do the  concert. Because the venue, the Women’s Club in Newton Highlands, had limited seating we decided on two shows and a modest admission price of $5.

Both shows sold out with standing ovations at the end. Maybe Mario was right and we really did have momentum.

standing ovation

standing ovation

Where are they now?

After finishing Berklee Makoto Ozone moved back to Japan. I saw him perform with Gary Burton in Cambridge many years later and he fondly remembered the Highland Jazz concert.

Phil Wilson is still a faculty member of the Berklee College of Music. He recently performed at a Highland Jazz event  as leader of the Rainbow/Dues Band.

1983 Summer is a Big Hit

jazzlogo2
Setting Up for the Concert

Setting Up for the Concert

By 7:00 p.m. on the night of the first concert the parking lot of the bakery had been transformed. Mario had brought in professional lighting, set up rows of chairs and filled tables with delicious refreshments. My son Benjamin was a great help–setting up the refreshments and ushering people to their seats. Mario had invited  his whole family to attend,  His mother and his elderly aunts and uncles sat proudly in the front row. They were often expressionless. Perhaps they weren’t jazz fans but had come nevertheless to support “the producer.”

Opening Night 1983

Opening Night 1983

Each concert attracted hundreds of people. Mario clearly loved being the center of attention. Often dressed in a white tux, he personally greeted everyone as they filed in, especially the women, repeating his favorite phrase– “Ciao, Bella.”

Summer program

Summer program 1983

Even the weather cooperated–cool breezes, moonlit nights, and no rain for all four concerts. When the music started, it was hard to remember that you were actually in a parking lot adjacent to the trolley line. The experience was quite magical. After each concert Mario invited the band members to his restaurant where he cooked a delicious meal for everyone. Then we spent hours huddled around the table, listening to the musicians exchange fascinating anecdotes about other gigs, playing on the road, or famous musicians whom they knew.

One of the musicians I hired was the guitarist Gray Sargent. I first heard him play during Trombone Week the previous winter. In the middle of lots of blaring brass I heard some beautiful lyrical lines played on guitar. I checked the program- the name Gray Sargent was unknown to me.  I started to search the newspaper looking for his name in the music listings. I went to several of his gigs and each time his playing stood out as something special.

When I started to line up bands for the summer series I thought it would be great to have Gray lead his own group. I tracked him down at the Stickey Wicket in Hopkinton, a place known  for Dixieland jazz. He was appearing with a band featuring Dave McKenna on piano. At intermission I mustered the courage to approach the bandstand and introduce myself. I told him about the series.

“How do you feel about playing in a parking lot?”

“Fine,” he answered.

It may have been one of his first gigs as a leader. He ws joined by his  good friend Marshall Wood on bass and “D” Sharpe on drums.  What a fabulous evening of music. Who would have guessed that two of the musicians in the Gray Sargent Trio (Gray and Marshall) would be invited to join Tony Bennett’s band many years later?

This first video features a duo with Tony and Gray (celsobe). The second  depicts Tony’s  appearance on the David Letterman Show (DominicanosHoyRD).  If you look carefully you can see Marshall Wood on bass and an occasional glimpse of Gray.

Here’s a list of some of the four bands from the first summer series.:

Bluesberry Jam with Harry Washburn on baritone sax; Gray Sargent Trio; Mel Bloom Quintet with Paul Fontaine on trumpet; and the Peter Koch Swing Band (with Peter on trumpet, Corey Eisenberg on piano, Alex Elin on tenor sax, Bob Pallala on drums  and Dave Hollender on bass.)

What happened to Mario’s idea of having  the audience vote for their favorite band at the end of the summer series? He abandoned that in favor of a much better alternative.  Each band member received an award for participation and a gift certificate for the restaurant, as well as $50 for playing.

highland jazz award

Highland Jazz Award