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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jazz at BAM: 1956—1981

In the last Jazz at BAM post, we traced the gradual introduction of the form to Brooklyn audiences. But things picked up speed in the mid-20th century.

Starting in 1956, the series “Jazz at the Academy” finally brought icons of the jazz world to the Opera House stage with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Stan Kenton, Dizzie Gillespie, and the father of jazz himself, Louis Armstrong. A one-time $15 membership fee guaranteed you a seat for the entire season. Also that year, Jean Murai’s Dance Company featured the West Indian Jazz Orchestra. In 1958, Jazz ’59 trumpeted the future with appearances by Zoot Sims, Marian McPartland, and Mose Allison.

The jazz floodgates opened at BAM in late 1960s with a series produced by Lionel Hampton, sponsored by Schaefer. It featured some of that era's masters: Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Tito Puente, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Lionel Hampton himself, and several R&B performers like the Coasters, Wilson Pickett, Patti LaBelle ("Lady Marmalade"), Irma Franklin ("Piece of My Heart"), and Solomon Burke. “An Evening in Black Gold” with Nina Simone played in April 1968, and later that year, another series, “Jazz/Roch/Bach,” combined genres with themes such as “Handel to Jazz: The Art of Improvisation.”

At BAM, you could hear jazz at dance performances, and soon jazz was incorporated into dramatic and experimental work. In 1969, Chelsea Theater Center presented the groundbreaking production of Leroi Jones’ Slave Ship, featuring original music by Archie Shepp. Shepp also composed original music for the CTC's lavish production of Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy, an original musical of the Billie Holiday story a decade after she died.

Jazz and blues were a regular mainstay at BAM in the 1970s. Numerous programs featured a wide variety of performers including Odetta, Elvin Jones, Big Mama Thornton ("Hound Dog"), Screamin' Jay Hawkins ("I Put a Spell on You"), John Lee Hooker, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the return of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Glimpses at the history of jazz could be seen in 1979's “Steps in Time: a Tap Dance Festival,” featuring Dizzie Gillespie; Max Morath’s show, “Living a Ragtime Life”; and tributes to Eubie Blake and Jelly Roll Morton. In 1980, Benny Goodman, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and Harry James and his Swinging Band took BAM's stage. Jazz was firmly in place at BAM in the early 1980s with appearances by jazz royalty Cab Calloway, Mel Tormé, Buddy Rich, and Tommy Dorsey.


Next in Jazz at BAM: the genre's parameters are tested with the advent of the Next Wave Festival.

—Louie Fleck, BAM archivist

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