The Berkshires jazz scene might not have been what it is today if the Boston Symphony Orchestra hadn’t needed a new dormitory to house its Berkshire Music Center students. It’s a move that would lead to the creation of a music venue where jazz and jazz artists were welcomed with open arms.
In 1949, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s five-year lease of Ventfort Hall was coming to an end, and the organization needed a new dormitory. Instead of renting a new building, Symphony executives purchased the adjacent Wheatleigh in Tanglewood and 21 acres of its original estate for $20,000. The 33-room Gilded Age Cottage, designed to resemble an Italian villa by Peabody & Stearns, of Boston, was built in 1893 for railroad magnate Henry H. Cook as a wedding present for his youngest daughter, the Countess Georgie Bruce Cook of Heredia. (After his death in 1946, Wheatleigh and his 380-acre estate passed to Heredia’s nieces, who sold it in 1949 to Joseph Lutske, a retired property developer. The remaining acreage was sold piecemeal – the majority becoming condos or privatized housing (a lot.)
The following year, in 1950, Stephanie and Philip Barber, a wealthy New York couple with ties to New York’s modern artist world, purchased the estate’s outbuildings and set out to bring jazz to the Berkshires during the next decade. They dreamed big and in the 1950s bought Wheatleigh from the BSO and undertook an extensive renovation of its outbuildings and grounds, creating the famous Music Inn, the Music Barn performance space and the Lenox School of Jazz.
Virtually every jazz master of the day, including Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Randy Weston, Charles Mingus and Sarah Vaughn, stayed at the Music Inn and/or graced the Music Barn stage. However, the barbers’ dreams proved bigger than their wallets and they had to sell everything they had built in 1960. Today, as Wheatleigh has become a five-star hotel, virtually all of the original outbuildings were razed and replaced by a condominium. complex. The barbers and the original buildings that housed their dreams may be gone but, as they say, music never dies and today jazz is becoming an important aspect of the Berkshire scene.
The jazz scene is stronger than ever since the days of the Barbers’ Music Inn. Now live jazz can be heard almost every night all year round in cozy restaurants, inns and theater stages across Berkshire, from North Adams to Egremont, as well as at jazz festivals and walks jazz when the weather warms up. And luckily, after a two-year hiatus caused by a pandemic, the Pittsfield CityJazz Festival returns for a two-weekend event, April 23-May 1, featuring a full roster of established and up-and-coming jazz artists.
GUARDIANS OF THE FLAME
Jazz remains a lifeblood of the Berkshires thanks to four people who, out of love for music, helped keep the jazz flame flickering in the region during some of its toughest years, when that flame was all but extinguished.
Edward Bride, president of the nonprofit Berkshire Jazz, brings more than 60 years of jazz involvement from his college days at Villanova University, when he hosted the college’s radio show devoted to to jazz. As President of Berkshire Jazz, he was responsible for booking top jazz talent into the region. Bride is also president of the Pittsfield CityJazz Festival, which he helped found in 2005.
“Creative minds love the Berkshires. Many of these musicians [performing here] might just make a living in New York, San Francisco, Kansas City, Chicago or other jazz havens,” Bride said, when asked if he thought it was hyperbole to say that venues Berkshire’s most intimate clubs rivaled some of New York’s most established clubs. York.
Composer and trombonist Don Mikkelsen has lived in the Berkshires for almost 20 years – after 30 years playing on Broadway and in clubs in New York, including salsa sessions with “fantastic musicians” starting at 2 a.m. . His credits include playing in Las Vegas for a couple of years in the Caesar’s Palace House Orchestra, backing mega stars such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett and Tom Jones; he also played in Elvis’ horn section.
After his many years in the Berkshires with inconsistent gigs, Mikkelsen finds the current scene “fantastic”.
“It was almost a little strange. I had to pinch myself because there are so many gigs to play now,” he said.
Chicago-born singer Wanda Houston — who brings her magnetic personality, incredible cheer and big, beautiful voice wherever she performs — has packed neighborhood homes since moving to the Berkshires more than 20 years ago. She has worked all over the world and done it all, from performing on Broadway, Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall, to taking on the role of choir director for the Congregational Church of Goshen in that little town just across the county from Berkshire. in Connecticut. Before moving to the area, she performed on the New York stage for years, where she says, “I worked on Broadway, on Broadway, under Broadway, on Broadway. I did all kinds of crazy stuff.
Wanda has that rare ability to bring tears to your eyes with a beautiful ballad, rock out to any diva, and call upon her gospel background to thrill as she sings the blues.
The county’s jazz scene received a major boost when Mill Town Capital purchased Mission Restaurant and Bousquet Mountain, both in Pittsfield, as well as the Gateways Inn and Restaurant in Lenox. Shortly after taking over these venues, they smartly hired bassist, composer, and educator Andy Wrba to curate the music for them. Wrba was the logical choice, as he is not only a brilliant musician, but has established a relationship for over 11 years leading Monday Night Jazz “In the Window” in Mission, which was one of the few Area venues regularly featured live jazz during the leaner years.
In addition to continuing jazz on Monday nights at the funky Mission Restaurant in downtown Pittsfield, Wrba and Mill Town offer jazz in a more refined setting at the restaurant at the beautiful and historic Gateways Inn year-round, Thursday through Saturday. Wrba and the Mill Town team are currently planning to create an all-summer outdoor music festival with lots of jazz at the fully renovated Bousquet Mountain resort, to be announced soon.
There are now many Berkshire inns and restaurants offering wonderful jazz regularly all year round, including Flat Burger Society and Methuselah Bar and Lounge in Pittsfield, the Apple Tree Inn in Lenox, the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge and The Egremont Barn at Egremont. .
Additionally, Ozawa Hall in Tanglewood, the Hunter Center in Mass MoCa, Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre, The Foundry in West Stockbridge and the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington are all Berkshire theaters showcasing great jazz artists as part of their regular schedule. Definitely worth checking out their upcoming schedules.
Because accomplished musicians are drawn to other talented and like-minded artists, the Berkshires have become something of a Mecca for musicians in the North East. Acclaimed composers and pianists Armen Donelian and Ted Rosenthal now reside in the area part-time and can be seen regularly. Rosenthal will perform his fascinating and deeply personal jazz opera, “Dear Erich” with members of the New York Opera at the Mahaiwe on August 6. Also in the area, saxophonist and composer Kris Allen – who plays in major jazz venues around the world – is currently artist-in-residence at Williams College and a regular on the jazz scene.
It’s a scene that will apparently only grow.
Stephanie and Philip Barber must smile at us.