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Jeremy D. Goodwin

Lenox’s Music Inn was jazz’s secret hotspot

clemens kalischer, courtesy of the image photos gallery in stockbridge

LENOX

The soft plink of tennis balls ricocheting off rackets filled the air on a recent Sunday afternoon at the high-end condominium development here called White Pines, sitting on a hilltop with stunning views of the surrounding Berkshire ridge lines. A sense of moneyed exclusivity wafts though the air now, but the soundtrack was once much different.

On a day like this you might have heard the New Orleans-inspired rhythms of Louis Armstrong’s band, leaking out from a converted horse barn packed with nearly 1,000 people as Satchmo played trumpet and pulled a series of handkerchiefs from his pockets to mop the perspiration sprouting on his brow. Or a musical soliloquy from Dizzy Gillespie, cheeks inflated as he blew into his trumpet while nestled in the branches of a tree. It’s where the wild saxophone sounds of a student named Ornette Coleman induced the more conservative reedman Jimmy Giuffre to dash inside the barn, jump on the stage and blow like no one had heard him blow before, to the delight of surprised onlookers like Dave Brubeck.

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As the classical music mecca of Tanglewood now trumpets its 75th anniversary season, there’s little to note the remarkable musical history made by its hip neighbor, where, a 15-minute stroll down a country road, jazz history was made — and then, perhaps, forgotten.

One condominium unit preserves the distinctive cupola and clock face that once marked the Music Inn, a constellation of related enterprises including upscale lodging, the performance venue Berkshire Music Barn, and, most notably, a peculiarly progressive institution called the Lenox School of Jazz.

This history is a mystery to most — Music Inn was not mentioned once in Ken Burns’ seven-part documentary on the evolution of jazz. Even in the Berkshires, a region well-practiced in reciting its ties to cultural history, it’s faded into a fuzzy memory of post-Woodstock rock concerts and, finally, an infamous gate-crashing incident that prompted its shuttering after an Allman Brothers show in 1979.

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But the legacy here is not merely the unheralded invention of the summer jazz festival — though that’s part of it.

The stars were here not only as performers, but as students and teachers- in-residence, swept up in the romance of an experiment in scholarship and social attitudes. A series of small house concerts and intensive musicological “roundtables” (with music greats sitting side by side with scholars recruited by a bespectacled English professor named Marshall Stearns) felt so invigorating, so important, that it gave way for four pioneering summers to the first-ever school dedicated to treating jazz as a legitimate art form — with some of the greats of the field as its teachers. Hello, Professor Gillespie.

The distinctive edge of this place was dulled by the steady march of commerce, but for at least its first decade, it made quiet history by simply insisting on taking jazz seriously, on studying it the way the students at Tanglewood’s teaching institute examined Beethoven. For a time it may have even seemed like a secluded antidote to the fear and bigotry surrounding the casual mixing of races predominant elsewhere.

Its unifying spirit is not without skeptics; the cynic might call it a “Europeanizing” of the African-American cultural experience. Years later, some of the jazz history books remain curiously quiet about what seemed at the time to be revelatory. Ironically, this showcase for jazz, perhaps the most American method of cultural expression, was displaced by another great American tradition: the whims of the marketplace.

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WHEN THE daughter of Chicago railway magnate Charles Cook was set to marry France’s Count Carlos de Heredia 1897, he did like many Gilded Age industrialists and built her a stupendous “cottage” in the Berkshires, a 33-room mansion emulating a 16th-century Italian palazzo. After the Countess’s death in 1946, the main house (known as Wheatleigh) was purchased by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to house music students at Tanglewood. Stephanie and Phillip Barber, two New York City public relations professionals, purchased the property’s outlying buildings — including the barn, ice house, and potting shed — and opened the Music Inn in 1950.

Their idea was to run an inn that would subsidize a self-styled musical salon. (They’d later buy Wheatleigh manor itself, recruiting well-heeled clientele for those much fancier digs in an effort to keep the operation afloat.) Their first concert featured Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and legendary folklorist Alan Lomax, who played previously unheard recordings of Jelly Roll Morton on a new, hi-fi sound system that impressed everybody.

As the music roundtables grew more extensive, the public concert series became increasingly popular and the school of jazz got going — featuring three weeks of lessons, lectures and jam sessions for audition-vetted students, led by the likes of Gillespie, Max Roach, and Bill Evans — there was the heady sense of breaking new ground. In 1957, Jazz Today declared it “one of the most important steps taken in jazz.”

John Lewis ran the school, and his influential Modern Jazz Quartet (who favored careful arrangements sometimes described as “chamber jazz”) was often in residence. Already a pro, free jazz pioneer Coleman was a student in 1959; a review of the school’s closing recital by critic Milton Bass in the Berkshire Eagle anticipates the free jazz debate that would reach a fever pitch a few weeks later upon Coleman’s New York City debut: “This talented young man split the faculty of the school smack down the middle because he plays in a style that is uniquely his own, a chaotic effusion that enraged the more traditionally oriented of the teachers.”

The standard history of this musical summer camp is that it treated jazz and folk with an unheard-of seriousness. Musicians performed, then sage academics traced out the music’s roots, finding continuity and depth in black American cultural expression that had not before been afforded such respectful scrutiny. Charlie Mingus bellowed “I got roots!” after hearing the playing of pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith. Brubeck’s experiments in unconventional time signatures were endorsed by an expert in African-American field hollers.

The setting took jazz from the smoky confines of nightclubs to an environment more like that of a concert hall, where audiences sat in rows of folding chairs and listened to music carefully, as living art.

This approach complemented not only the MJQ’s aesthetic, but the “Third Stream” music (integrating forms of classical and jazz) advocated by Gunther Schuller, a leader of the Lenox school who would hold prestigious roles at the BSO and New England Conservatory.

Musicians from Tanglewood regularly mixed in during after-hours jam sessions at the Inn. Conductor Leonard Bernstein would leave his day job across the meadows and listen to late-night jam sessions in the sweaty carriage house, where boogie-woogie pianists might jam with West African percussionists. Aaron Copland was a regular visitor as well. Pianist Randy Weston remembers opera singers coming by and singing along to his solo piano playing.

When Roach, the architect of bebop drum style, was invited to jam with the BSO’s percussion section, his musical cousins were curious but skeptical. Benjamin Barber, Philip’s son by an earlier marriage who was drafted into summer bellhop duties at age 11, witnessed this percussion summit as a teenager. He says he’ll “never forget” the mood among the highly trained BSO visitors.

“I remember the orchestra people being a little bit patronizing, and there was a kind of palpable astonishment as he was able to sit in with them,” he says now. “They were stunned.”

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THE COLLABORATION was such a success, a formal concert was staged at the barn. The first piece playfully merged themes by composers named Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky … and Roach.

For all its progressive intent, the notion that the Music Inn and its roundtables and school granted “legitimacy” to jazz can be seen skeptically in hindsight — as if jazz needed to be “rescued” from its own sordid milieu. Nightclubs, dancing, oral tradition — the horror!

An unreleased documentary recounts an anecdote meant to celebrate the open-minded environment allowing Trinidadian dancer Geoffrey Holder to eloquently hold forth on his art despite a stammer. But the inspiration for his remarks — cited but not remarked upon — is worth consideration. “When they began to speak about the Caribbean,” Holder says in an interview decades later, after mimicking the chin-stroking seriousness of the academics, “to me it was an insult to my culture, to my country, to my father.”

It’s indeed tempting to conclude his emotionally powerful dance, performed in traditional dress and marked by flailing limbs and shaking torso, communicated its power just fine without footnotes.

But if we’re to see all the earnest intellectual effort spent here as a subtly patronizing bit of cultural legerdemain, the view seems to assume, insidiously, that musical scholarship itself is somehow a “white” activity.

The multiracial participation at both the performance and scholarly end also gives the lie to the cynical view. It seems this secluded Berkshire getaway established the musicians and academics as peers, and created a common ground absent in much of America — exactly during the years when the Supreme Court issued Brown v. Board of Education and the nascent civil rights movement was just beginning to emerge.

Yearbooks for Lenox’s high school in the 1950s show very few nonwhite faces. Stephanie Barber recounted stories of Lenox innkeepers refusing to host black musicians; an article on the school in a Detroit newspaper took care to note that black and white musicians were lodged side by side. Yet despite whatever level of racial tension was typical for the times, the Music Inn was accepted as a notable piece of the region’s cultural fabric.

It was not racial tension that shut down the Music Inn. It just didn’t make money.

The Barbers’ effort was a labor of love. They tried to secure sponsorships, but this haven for art music was never going to be a big moneymaker. They sold the Music Inn and its concert series in 1960; the school of jazz folded after fund-raising efforts for a 1961 session were unsuccessful.

New Inn owner Don Soviero reconfigured it as an outdoor venue seating over 5,000 patrons, in a preview of the outdoor amphitheaters that would come to dominate the summer concert circuit. Though some of the big jazz names stayed in rotation, the new norm was a more mainstream selection of popular folk and rock acts of the day. The reality was, 700 people at a Louis Armstrong concert were never going to be as lucrative as 5,000 people buying tickets for Joan Baez.

Even with his efforts to broaden the audience base, Soviero went bankrupt in ’67; the Music Inn was revived for one more run by David Rothstein, who booked acts like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, and the Kinks.

Eventually, the marketplace did what America’s climate of racial bigotry couldn’t. The question isn’t why the Music Inn “failed” — it’s why it took so long for the choice property it sat upon to turn into high-priced real estate.

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TODAY, MEMORIES of this unique moment in music history are fading, and a series of attempts to tell the story have been frustrated. In the mid-1980s, grand plans were laid for a revival to be filmed for a major HBO special. It never happened. Careful lists were drawn up for a three-CD compilation of recordings made at Music Inn. It never came out.

Cultural journalist Seth Rogovoy wrote to Mrs. Barber in 1995, asking for her cooperation on a book about the Inn; she declined and even asked him to stop, as she was writing her own. He complied, but she never wrote it. (A slender volume by Boston University professor Jeremy Yudkin remains the definitive history.) Even the documentary, titled “Music Inn” and directed by Ben Barenholtz, is filled with priceless footage but currently gathers dust, the music rights unsecured.

In the modest archives of the Barber era, sitting inconspicuously in the Lenox library, lies a typewritten postscript to an experiment that once seemed the center of the jazz world.

In 1986, an editor for the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz wrote to Stephanie Barber for help solving a mystery. The book’s compilers kept coming across references to something called the Lenox School of Jazz, and they wondered what it was. “Was the school some part of the activities of the festival and Berkshire Music School?” the letter asks quizzically.

Just 30 years after the jazz press declared the Lenox school to be one of the most exciting things ever to happen for the music, the current arbiter of jazz history had completely forgotten about it.

Taking her best guess at where to find Mrs. Barber, the editorial assistant mailed the letter to Tanglewood.

Jeremy Goodwin is an independent journalist based in the Berkshires. More of his work can be found at www.jeremydgoodwin.com.
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