The Stan Kenton Legacy Orchestra pays its first visit to the Berkshires on Sunday.
Jazz. It’s been described as America’s original art form. The baseball of music. Despite its origins in the South and its natural environment of the city, the Berkshires have made their mark on the rich and complex history of jazz.
“We have a wonderful history of music going back — of jazz especially — going back to the mid 1950’s,” said Ed Bride, the President of Berkshires Jazz. The nonprofit was formed in 2009, after four seasons of the Pittsfield Jazz Festival. From 1957 until 1960, the Lenox School Of Jazz — housed in a barn attached to the Music Inn in Stockbridge — attracted musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Percy Heath, and Ornette Coleman to teach and learn together at a critical moment in the development of jazz.
“And at the School Of Jazz, the modern jazz quartet was the house band," said Bride. "They would try new music that was written there. Randy Weston, the jazz master piano player was discovered at Music Inn. He was a dishwasher.”
Bride hopes Berkshires Jazz will keep the music as much a part of the county’s identity now as it was then.
“This Sunday April 15th we have the Stan Kenton Legacy Orchestra making their first ever visit to western Massachusetts. They’ll be playing at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington at a 7 o’clock concert. And in the afternoon they’ll be conducting a big band workshop, sort of a master class for student musicians who are into jazz. And that’ll be at 3 o’clock, free to students,” said Bride.
“One of the things that the Stan Kenton Orchestra brings is that — it’s really unique to them — is their education philosophy, the idea that it’s just not a concert that they’re coming to do, but they’re going to come and they’re going to work with the students and show what they do, answer their questions, but also help them grow a love for jazz,” said Michael Gillespie.
Gillespie — no relation to Dizzy — is the director of band for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, covering both Monument Mountain and Monument Valley Middle School. The Monument Mountain Jazz Band will open for the Orchestra at the evening performance.
“Monument Mountain has a great tradition of high school jazz band going back decades, and it’s been one of the strongest parts of the school for a while," said Gillespie. "We have a large jazz program from the middle school all the way through the high school. Right now the high school jazz band has over 30 students. These students have been studying jazz for years, and they regularly are accepted into the Western District Jazz Band, and we’ve even had two of them accepted into the All-State Jazz Band this year.”
Stan Kenton has been described as the Van Halen of his day, leading a big band from the 40s into the late 70s that played his signature brand of popular but progressive jazz. Trumpter Mike Vax played a major role in Kenton’s band, and leads the Stan Kenton Legacy Orchestra. Begun in 1991, 50 years after the formation of the original band, the Legacy Orchestra works to honor Kenton’s dedication to looking forward.
“One of the things that we decided was that every tour we have new music written in the Kenton style by a lot of the guys in the band so that it isn’t a ghost band," said Vax. "We keep the music fresh, and also one of the things that Stan believed in was jazz education, and all of our tours, like what Stan used to do with the band, when the school books us for an evening performance, then we do a free afternoon workshop for the school.”
That free workshop is at Monument Mountain High School at 3 p.m. Sunday, with the concert at 7.