You don’t have to go far within the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts to find jazz these days. That's the case despite the Boston Symphony Orchestra organization’s bottom-line decision two years ago to pull the plug on its Tanglewood Jazz Festival, which had grown into an area jazz fixture over the prior 24 years.
While jazz has strong ties to the area dating to the Lenox School of Jazz (1957 to 1960) at the Music Inn and some historic Tanglewood collaborations, Berkshires Jazz Inc. President Ed Bride recalls that there was a dry period from the 1970s well into the 1980s – when he was lucky if he found one jazz gig a month attend.
Tanglewood’s Jazz Festival, which began in 1988 and ran through 2011, helped changed that reality. While Tanglewood no longer produces a Labor Day Weekend event filled with jazz acts, it does present some jazz groups as single-ticket attractions peppered throughout its season. This summer’s lineup included Terence Blanchard on June 28 and Esparanza Spalding on August 4 – and will continue with Monty Alexander on August 25 and a day-night doubleheader on August 31 with Donal Fox (afternoon) and Harry Connick Jr. (evening).
With the latter double dose of jazz at Ozawa Hall on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, plus a Patti Austin concert on Sunday afternoon with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra at Tanglewood's main Koussevitsky Shed, it raises the question of whether the BSO is dipping its toes back into the water to see if there is a hunger for the return of a formal jazz festival in future years. Stay tuned.
That’s far from the extent of local jazz. Visitors and residents now have choices. Bride’s nonprofit is involved with two such events: the Berkshire Gateway Jazz Weekend (co-sponsored with Berkshire Gateway Preservation Inc.), which held its second annual series July 25-28 in Lee, and the Pittsfield City Jazz Festival, running October 9-19. The latter’s ninth annual festival 's major concert is a musical tribute to Dave Brubeck by the Brubeck Brothers Quartet featuring several of the late pianist’s sons.
Bride said next year’s third annual Berkshire Gateway Jazz Weekend is likely to move to early June, which will further stretch the season. Jazz can also be found on a regular basis at the Gateways Inn in Lenox (nightly in July and August, and Thursday through Saturdays September through June; and Fridays and Saturdays at the Castle Street Café in nearby Great Barrington. There’s a jazz jam on Monday nights at Pittsfield’s Mission Bar and Tapas restaurant.
Right across the street, jazz can be heard six days and evenings a week at The Lantern – a North Street bar and grill where owner Mark Papas, a fine drummer when he gets time to play, serves up the burgers and other fare to customers as his collection of 7,000 jazz tunes rotates through the sound system.
Papas also presents live jazz in the tiny, knotty-pine-paneled grill about once a month, often featuring his own group. The wall behind The Lantern’s lunch counter contains a variety of photos of jazz greats. He told me a dozen of them are from a jazz photography book he received from one of his regular customers – TV personality Gene Shalit. Another smaller photo is of Clifford Jarvis, a hard bop and free jazz drummer with whom Papas studied.
The Lantern is a lunchtime tradition when I visit Pittsfield for a few days each summer. It’s a chance to grab a noontime burger and tap my toes.
May the venues and listening options continue to grow. This artsy resort area merits it.