Sometime in the spring of 1984 Mario set up a meeting to discuss a new project. He suggested that we organize an all-day jazz and arts festival. How and why he came up with this idea is still a mystery to me. Perhaps he was inspired by the Newport Jazz Festival, a yearly summer tradition which attracted crowds of thousands of people. His enthusiasm swept me right along.
The first order of business was to find a venue. Clearly the parking lot behind his bakery was not an option. We first investigated a retirement home for priests; I can’t exactly recall where it was, possibly in Weston, but we agreed that it was pretty remote and the clergy were not all that enthusiastic about hosting a jazz concert.
After considering several other venues we found a scenic location at Mount Ida College in Newton. Behind one of the main buildings was a beautiful sloping lawn leading to a large oval pool with a white statue rising out of the middle of it. There was also a huge parking lot adjacent to the lawn. It seemed ideal. We negotiated a reasonable price for renting the space and set the date for Sunday July 15, 1984.
I hired four bands for the event, many of whom had already preformed for Highland Jazz during our first season. Here’s the publicity flier announcing the event.
What a line-up of outstanding musicians: the Semenya McCord Quartet with Stan Strickland, the Alex Elin Quartet, the Wayne Naus-Greg Hopkins Big Band with vocalist Maggie Scot and the Rebecca Parris Quartet. Fortunately Semenya and Rebecca shared the same rhythm section and that helped to reduce the costs on the musical side.
The Big Band read like a Who’s Who of Boston musicians at the time: Joe Calo, Alex Elin and Bill Pierce on tenor saxophone; Jimmy Mosher and Larry Munroe on alto saxophone; Jerry Ash, Gene DiStasio, Tony Lada and Kenny Wenzel on trombone; Paul Fontaine, Greg Hopkins, Wayne Naus, Roy Okatani and Jeff Stout on trumpet; Mick Goodrick on guitar; John Lockwood on bass and Joe Hunt on drums.
Imagine- all this music for a modest entrance fee of $5.00!
Tony Cennamo, Ron Della Chiesa and Eric Jackson were MC’s for the day. They introduced each group and kept the audience entertained while the musicians set up on stage.
We also invited a number of local artists to exhibit their work: painters, potters, portrait artists, and jewelers. We even had a juggler to amuse the children.
Prior to the day of the festival Mario informed me that he had hired an Italian ensemble to perform – an ethnic group who wore traditional Italian costumes, danced and sang. I was shocked. Why would he introduce an Italian ensemble in the midst of a jazz festival? This was our first argument and I quickly learned that he could be a very difficult man to oppose. So in the end, in spite of my protestation, we had a 25 minute performance by the Gruppo Folkloristico Orsognese.
I still remember how obsessed I was the week before the festival. What would the weather be like? I spent hours watching and listening to weather reports. I was especially worried about rain. Yes, there was a contingency plan; we could move the concert indoors if necessary, but that would mean a crowded space without air conditioning.
To protect the instruments and electronics in case of a sudden downpour and also to shade the musicians from the sun we had hired a huge blue tent to cover the stage. That was a fortunate decision, because July 15 turned out to be one of the hottest days of the summer- scorching heat, more than 90 degrees with non-stop sun.
By the middle of the afternoon a lot of people were wading in the pool to cool off. I felt very grateful that nobody had to be carried off in an ambulance from heat exhaustion.
Musically it was a great success. Financially we lost more than $2,000. In addition to musician fees, rent for the venue, the stage and the tent, we had to pay for a professional sound system and an engineer to monitor the sound.
I think Mario made some money on the refreshments and drinks. He sold plenty of both, but overall for Highland Jazz the event was a substantial loss.
The free summer concerts continued in the same format as the preceding year on four Wednesday evenings. We heard Wanetta Jackson and New Moon, the Alex Elin Quintet, Mili – a Latin and American Band featuring Mili Bermejo on vocals, and concluded with Jeff Stout and his Red Hot Dixieland Band.