1986-1987 An Exciting 4th Season

jazz logo  We finally had a second venue. Mario and I negotiated the use of a large hall at the Congregational Church of Newton Highlands. We could now alternate between the two churches. Mario was delighted because the church was directly opposite his restaurant. I was even more delighted because the hall came with a playable grand piano. Little did I know at the time that in my 20 years as director of Highland Jazz I would actually present concerts in 12 different venues! Although the hall at the Congregational Church was larger than St. Paul’s it did have one major flaw. The roof was falling apart and pieces of plaster occasionally fell to the floor. To safeguard the audience we had to rope off the center where there was the greatest likelihood of falling plaster. The bathroom was small and hidden under the stairs but nobody complained about that. The sound was generally good and, like St. Paul’s, the church was located near the MBTA stop and therefore easy to find. This was not the perfect venue but it was good enough. We opened the series with a blockbuster concert, entitled Just Friends. It was an evening of jazz, gospel and blues and featured four outstanding female vocalists: Paula Elliot,

Jan, Paula aand Wanetta

left to right Jan, Paula and Wanetta
photograph by Ruth Williams

Semenya McCord, Wanetta Jackson and Jan Forney-Davis. I had heard the group perform a year before and anticipated a memorable evening. Each woman had her own style and this made their collaboration really interesting. In addition to the ensembles each vocalist sang one or two solos with the band.

Semenya McCord

Semenya McCord photograph by Ruth Williams

After all these years I still remember Semenya’s rendition of “Song for my father,” so soulful that the audience seemed to stop breathing.

Vinnie Jeffries

Vinnie Jeffries
photograph by Ruth Williams

The rhythm section included pianist Vinnie Jeffries, bassist Dan O’Brien and drummer Alvin Terry. Dan O'Brien

Dan O’Brien photograph by Ruth Williams
Alvin Terry photograph by Ruth Evans

Alvin Terry
photograph by Ruth Williams

The December concert featured the Gray Sargent Trio and introduced a new face to the Highland Jazz audience. Gray suggested that I hire Donna Byrne as vocalist for his group. I had never heard of her but since I really respected his musical opinion I took his advice.

Donna Byrne

Donna Byrne
photograph by Ruth Williams

Ernie  Santosuosso  of the Boston Globe described her as “a perky personality with an impressive range and a tasteful song repertoire.” She impressed the audience with her beautiful voice and clear articulation as well as her quirky sense of humor. This marked the beginning of what would be a long relationship between Donna and Highland Jazz. To top off a great night of music Mario had outdone himself; he sent over a huge yuletide roll as dessert during intermission. As usual there was no charge.

Yule log

Nancy Alimansky and her son Benjamin cut a 12-foot Yule log for the jazz lovers who turned out to hear the Gray Sargent Trio

The new year started off with the Stan Strickland Quintet. It was a snowy day and I realized the risk of scheduling concerts in January and February. I decided in the future to avoid those two months as much as possible. But what I remember most about this concert was not the snow.

Stan Strickland

Stan Strickland
photograph by Ruth Williams

Stan arrived early in the afternoon to check out the sound system and to rehearse with the group. He told me that he had forgotten to pick up one of his saxophones; he had left it at Rayburn Music for repair.  He asked me to pick it up for him. That would mean a drive downtown to Mass. Avenue near Symphony Hall. I agreed in spite of my better judgment. Of course I had trouble finding a parking space and of course I had a long wait at the store which was packed with musicians on a Saturday afternoon. And of course I knew that no other jazz producer would drive around in the snow to pick up a player’s instrument.  My mother used to say that making a mistake is okay as long as you don’t repeat it. And this was something I was not going to do again. The concert was great. Stan got the audience to wave their arms in response to the music- something he liked to do to get everyone involved. All ended well.

Stan Strickland

Stan Strickland photograph by Ruth Williams

Alan Dawson

Alan Dawson
photograph by Ruth Williams

The February concert was quite special to me. Alan Dawson agreed to put together a concert as leader, something he rarely did. I think he was very comfortable, sitting in the back of the stage surrounded by his drums, the consummate sideman;  he told me he was less comfortable leading the band.

White Browne

Whit Browne
photograph by Ruth Williams

For this concert he hired Whit Browne, one of Boston’s most sought after bassists and two young, dynamic musicians, players I had never heard before- Anthony Peterson on guitar and James Gates on alto saxophone.

Anthony Peterson

Anthony Peterson photograph by Ruth Williams

James Gates

James Gates photograph by Ruth Williams

They were fabulous! You can see from the broad smile on Alan’s face how much fun he was having.

Tenor Madness

Tenor Madness with Bill Pierce, Alex Elin and George Garzone
photograph by Ruth Williams

Tenor Madness returned in April and we ended the season with a history of jazz entitled What Good is a Song-From Spirituals to Ellington and Back. Unbelievable as it might seem I decided to change venues again to an elementary school auditorium. The Countryside School is in Newton Highlands, although it is on the other side of Route 9 and certainly not close to Mario’s businesses. I convinced him that we needed a large auditorium for the concert and he reluctantly agreed.

Larry Watson

Larry Watson
photograph by Ruth Williams

The program starred Larry Watson who was at the time a Dean at the Harvard School of Design. He had already made a name for himself as one of the lead vocalists in The Black Nativity. This was a blockbuster event featuring eleven musicians. In addition to Larry, there were four other vocalists, two keyboard players, a  trumpet player, a tenor saxophonist and a drummer. Eric Jackson was the MC. As a venue the school was not ideal. It is in a quiet neighborhood, somewhat difficult to find. And what I forgot to consider was that the bathrooms were designed for children under the age of ten and there was only one adult size restroom to accommodate our audience.

Where are they now?

I found a CD by Alvin Terry which includes most of the Boston musicians who have played for Highland Jazz. Check out The Art of Boston CD.

Anthony Peterson earned a degree at Berklee and joined the faculty a year after graduation; he therefore became one of the youngest members of the faculty at that time. Three years later he moved to Brooklyn, New York.  In this interview he discusses his career and his philosophy about music.

James Gates graduated from Berklee in 1984. He has had a varied career which you can read about in the Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians web site. He has traveled widely both in the U.S. and abroad. Until 2001 he was leader of a band known as the Jazz Messengers which participated in numerous festivals and won many awards. In this clip he plays his arrangement of Chick Corea’s “Spain.” Alan certainly knew how to pick young talent!

Whit Browne is a professor of Bass at Berklee. On the department web site he describes himself as “the jazz guy.” In this impromptu video he plays Ray Brown’s bass.

Larry Watson has had a full and interesting career. You can learn about his present activities at Berklee where he is now a professor of voice and ensemble.

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