Capturing Music Inn on celluloid
by Seth Rogovoy
(LENOX, Mass., August 28, 2003) – As the crowds gather at Tanglewood this weekend for the annual Labor Day weekend jazz festival, what many concertgoers might not realize is that once upon a time, there was a Tanglewood-like home for jazz just down the road.
From 1950 to 1960, jazz and folk fans and musicians gathered every summer at Music Inn, a retreat that offered concerts, residencies, lectures and eventually a school for jazz – much like the Tanglewood Music Center, perhaps the first of its kind for jazz -- on the property that is now White Pines, a condominium development.
Later in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Music Inn would enjoy notoriety for its post-Woodstock vibe and its louder, rock ‘n’ roll fare. But for its first decade, under the auspices of Stephanie Barber, who died earlier this week, and her late husband Philip, Music Inn provided a summer home for the likes of Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ornette Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Giuffre, Woody Guthrie, Oscar Peterson and Randy Weston, among many others who performed, taught, or just hung out at this oasis of bebop in the Berkshires.
As many of the key players from the heyday of Music Inn are getting on in years, a contingent of filmmakers is scrambling to interview participants in this amazing experiment that took jazz out of the dark, dingy urban nightclubs and exposed it to the fresh air and audiences of the Berkshire countryside, for a projected feature-length documentary film.
“It was a unique period and moment in jazz and we’re trying to capture that period through interviews with some of those who are still around,” said Ben Barenholtz, a producer who is spearheading the film under the auspices of Projectile Arts, a non-profit organization whose mission, according to its website, is “to foster dialogue between different cultures and communities through the arts.”
“We’re going to try to capture the period, and the impact that period had -- the wider impact on jazz music and other areas, spawning some jazz festivals and the serious study of jazz,” said Barenholtz, speaking earlier this week in a phone interview from his home in New York.
A film industry veteran who has worked in production, exhibition and distribution, and who programmed films at Music Inn’s Toad Hall cinema one summer in the early 1970s, Barenholtz said that proceeds from the eventual distribution and sale of the documentary will go towards a scholarship fund honoring Stephanie Barber.
The “Music Inn” film team also includes director Casey Meade, the founder of Projectile Arts who -- as the son of David Rothstein, who ran Music Inn from 1970 to 1979 and who now runs Racebrook Lodge in Sheffield, and Nancy Fitzpatrick, who still lives in the renovated Potting Shed on the original site – grew up on the grounds of the Music Inn property, hearing stories about legendary jam sessions that took place in his living room and kitchen.
“It’s been exciting to learn more about all this stuff that happened there,” said Meade in a recent phone interview from Nevada, hours before he was to go off to attend Burning Man, the annual counterculture festival held in the Black Rock Desert.
The film crew’s efforts so far have been primarily devoted to interviewing those who played a key role in the events at Music Inn in the 1950s. Barenholtz said he was spurred on by the death of John Lewis a few years ago. Fortunately, the crew already had spent four to five hours filming Stephanie Barber before her passing on Tuesday.
“We’ve already lost two guys since we started the project -- Olatunji and Herbie Mann,” said Meade, adding that the crew has already interviewed Percy Heath, George Russell, Herb Pomeroy, Ran Blake, Juanita Giuffre, Jay Foster, Randy Weston, and John Hendricks.
Plans for the film include the staging of a Music Inn reunion concert along the lines of “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” bringing together people like Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, Randy Weston, and the surviving members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, one of several groups to have recorded albums at the Music Inn.
Although there were plenty of still photographs taken at Music Inn, there isn’t much original film footage available. The documentary will consist in large part of new interviews with contemporary witnesses, but the filmmakers are hoping that home movies of the proceedings might surface. “We’ll use whatever photos and footage we have from there, or from that period,” said Barenholtz.
“Ken Burns shows us you can do a lot with photos, interviews, and voiceover in the background,” said Meade, “but I want to do more, and make it more entertaining, more engaging than just people talking.”
The total budget for the project is $150,000. Earlier this week in response to a fund-raising campaign, a donor offered a matching challenge grant of $50,000. “The more we get, the more music we can use, and the more music we can use, the more valuable the film can be,” said Barenholtz, who said the film would be geared for broadcast on TV and in educational venues, if not for theatrical release, some time late next year.
Others involved in the production include Stephanie Barber’s stepson Benjamin Barber, the political commentator and author who spent his formative years as a teen-ager in the unique cultural milieu that was Music Inn. Barber will narrate the film.
Drummer George Schuller, who is also a composer and producer and the son of Gunther Schuller, who was a member of the faculty at the School of Jazz, has signed on as a co-producer and musical director. He is currently compiling a collection of previously unreleased recordings of faculty and student performances from the School of Jazz between 1958 and 1960 to be released by GM Recordings next year.
“It was so ahead of its time and so heady for its time,” said Schuller about the School of Jazz. “The film will probably change a little bit of the history of jazz, because this center of activity has been really ignored for many years, for far too long.
“Probably every day was a groundbreaking event, where some of the heaviest cats got together with the students. It’s hard to fathom coming out of your room and going outside and seeing Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, John Lewis, Jimmy Giuffre, George Russell, to see all those guys walking around.
“I kind of wish somebody would have started much earlier to make sure that Stephanie and John Lewis and Marshall Stearns and all the others who contributed to this haven would have gotten their due.”
When a young, married couple from New York City named Philip and Stephanie Barber bought part of the summer estate of the Countess de Heredia in 1950, they had no intention of living a quiet, peaceful life in the country. Rather, their plan was to re-create the cultural milieu they had left behind by making their new home a magnet for the sort of company, conversation and conviviality they had come to treasure in the city.
It would be a place where musicians and critics would congregate to exchange theories and riffs, a sort of jazz salon. “When we first opened, it was to explore the beginnings of jazz, where it came from,” said Stephanie Barber in a 1995 interview. “Everybody was always arguing about that. Did it come from Africa, did it start in the South, did it come from Africa to the South? So we would invite people from different parts of the world to play with each other, and the next morning a panel of experts would discuss what happened the night before.”
The brainchild of the Barbers’ friend Marshall Stearns, an English professor at Hunter College and a well-known jazz critic and historian, the “Folk and Jazz Roundtable” was one of the first serious inquiries into the origins and development of jazz, which at the time was still looked down upon by “serious” music lovers.
At the time, jazz was played primarily by African-Americans, and by inviting musicians to stay with them the Barbers tested the limits of local hospitality. “Black people were not popular in New England,” remembered Barber, who until she died lived in Lenox not far from the original site. “In the early days, we had problems finding beds in local inns for artists who happened to be black when we overflowed our own capacity. People in the village did not approve of what we were doing. But in good New England fashion, they believed we had the right to do it.”
As for the musicians themselves, the roundtables often proved revelatory. In the liner notes to the “Historic Jazz Concert at Music Inn” album, recorded in 1956, Nat Hentoff recounts the time Charles Mingus exclaimed, “Hey! I've got roots!” after one particularly illuminating solo by ragtime pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith. Others who were influenced by their time at Music Inn include Dave Brubeck, who wrote much of his “Time Further Out” album while in residence with his family for a summer at Music Inn, and pianist Randy Weston, who wrote his best-known composition, “Berkshire Blues,” there.
By the mid-‘50s, concerts were regularly held under a tent in the courtyard of the renovated stables on the property, featuring performers like Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Jimmy Giuffre, the West Stockbridge resident who grew so fond of the surroundings that he never left the area.
By 1957, the success of the roundtables and the concert series led to the creation of the School of Jazz at Music Inn, with Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis as director. For three weeks in August, famous pros like Lewis, Gillespie, Giuffre, Lennie Tristano, and Max Roach trained a new generation of jazz players in the first formal effort of its kind. Both Arif Mardin, whose credits as a record producer include Aretha Franklin and the Bee Gees, and Ornette Coleman, who pushed jazz to the limits of abstraction in the 1960s, were graduates of the School of Jazz.
With the concerts at the Music Barn going full steam and the school blazing new trails in jazz education, Music Inn became known throughout the country as a great place to hear and play jazz. Among the numerous live albums recorded there were two by the Modern Jazz Quartet and one by saxophonist Sonny Rollins. By the end of the decade, Music Inn was synonymous with the best in jazz.
In 1957, the Barbers bought and moved into Wheatleigh, the main house of the original estate, and began converting it into the palatial inn it remains today. After a few years, the demands of running both places grew burdensome, and they decided to sell Music Inn. Although the place still had two decades of life left in it, the historical era that the filmmakers hope to recapture came to an end.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 30, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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