1985-1986 A Banner Season for Highland Jazz

jazz logo  The new season began with a lot of excitement.  We had made some improvements to our indoor home, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, by providing professional lighting on stage and a curtain as a backdrop. I have always felt that people listening to jazz are more comfortable in a cabaret setting, seated at small tables rather than in formal rows. We decided to set up tables (a la Boston Pops) in the church hall, knowing that might restrict the size of the audience but hoping to create a more relaxed atmosphere for listening.

Other problems in the church couldn’t be solved. In the winter whenever the heat came on the pipes would start to clang. The piano continued to be a challenge and rather than renting one for a substantial price, I booked bands which either didn’t need a piano or could bring an electric one. We had to set up the hall with folding chairs from the basement and then return the chairs when the concert was over. I commandeered my teenage son to arrange the chairs before the concert and then asked each member of the audience to carry one downstairs before leaving the hall. Then with help from some of the volunteers I swept the space to leave it “spic and span” for the Sunday morning activities. I remember at least one night that I received a call from Reverend Tom at 12:30 a.m. admonishing me for not leaving the hall in perfect order.

We also introduced a season ticket package, including tickets for any four concerts and a $10 coupon toward dinner at the Cantin’Abruzzi, (Mario’s restaurant in Newton Highlands.) That was a $38.00 value for the price of $28.00. Series holders would also have preferential seating at concerts.

I would have liked to find another venue, certainly one with a better piano. However, Mario insisted that the concerts take place in Newton Highlands. He probably wanted all his enterprises clustered in the same area since his restaurant, bakery and deli were down the street from the church.  His restaurant was always overflowing with customers on Saturday nights when the concerts took place; he probably couldn’t accommodate additional diners from the concert audience, but I am sure he hoped to use the concerts to advertise all his businesses in the area. He continued to send over free drinks and a special dessert from the bakery to serve during intermission. He was always too busy cooking to drop by and hear the music. I was sorry that he didn’t have the chance to experience the indoor concerts and see what he was sponsoring.

The line-up for the fall included the Mili Bermejo quintet, a Latin American jazz band;  The Jazz Harp Trio featuring Deborah Hanson-Conant;  Singin the Blues with Arlene Bennett; Lose Your Winter Blues with Bob Winter on piano and Phil Wilson on trombone; Tenor Madness and Style and Soul with Stan Strickland.

Tenor Madness was the brain child of saxophonist Alex Elin.

Alex Elin

Alex Elin

Alex invited Bill Pierce and George Garzone to join him for the concert. The rhythm section was more than solid: Bill (Baggy) Grant on drums, Gray Sargent on guitar, and Marshall Wood on bass.

The title for the concert comes from a tune by Sonny Rollins from the album of the same name. It seemed a great title for this event.


Here were three outstanding tenor players, all leaders of their own band but whose styles were completely different. Each clearly tried to outdo the others on solos. Alex’s solos had a strong bebop influence; in length they were moderate with clear improvisations for the tune itself.

George Garzone

George Garzone

George was known for a more innovative and avant- garde approach.


Bill Pierce

Bill Pierce with Grey Sargent on guitar and Bill Grant on drums

Bill played long, complicated but nonetheless beautiful solos, hardly seeming to ever take a breadth or even alter his stand while he delivered his musical message. The audience reacted very positively to the friendly competition on stage and gave the group a standing ovation at the end.


Gray Sargent
watercolor by Nancy Alimansky

The other concert that stands out from that year was the duo between pianist Bob Winter and trombonist Phil Wilson. Phil had appeared at our first indoor concert with pianist Makoto Ozone more than 30 years ago. This time he teamed up with another Berklee faculty member. Bob was the pianist for the Boston Pops and the Boston Pops Esplanade orchestras. In 1985 he also had a steady gig at Four Seasons hotel in Boston where he played solo piano.  I was delighted that he agreed to do this duo with Phil.

Where are they now?

Mili Bermejo has been a professor at the Berklee College of Music since 1984. Her website includes a jazz portrait produced by WGBH which gives insight into her background and teaching experience. In this video  Mili performs with her husband Dan Greenspan on bass, Eugene Friesen on cello and Tim Ray on piano.

Bob Winter has had an impressive musical  career. He still plays for the Pops and has been a professor of piano at Berklee for 30 years. The Boston Symphony site has an extensive resume about Bob which provides a lot of information about his background, teaching and touring.

Phil Wilson is  a professor of brass at Berklee. He is especially known for his work as conductor and arranger for the Rainbow Band. In this excerpt from the Berklee website he talks about his work with young jazz players. He continues to be an inspiration and mentor for students, not unlike his work with Makoto Ozone more than 30 years ago when they played the first indoor Highland Jazz concert. On December 9, 1995, declared “Phil Wilson Day in the City of Boston,” by Mayor Thomas Menino, the college honored Phil with a 30th anniversary International Dues Band Reunion Concert. O

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