OUR HISTORY

  

  THE VERY BEGINNING...

Julie Lokin, Art Weiner and Seth Willenson were all friends and jazz freaks who during the sixties had produced jazz concerts in college. Art and Julie met as members of the Jazz Society of Hunter College and Seth produced concerts at Cornell University. In 1971 while they each worked in related aspects of the motion picture industry, all three remained dedicated jazz lovers and decried what appeared to be the demise of jazz in the Big Apple. With youthful naivety and unbound enthusiasm, they decided that they would trigger the return of the New York jazz scene by organizing a major jazz event at a major New York venue. That event would prove to be a truly historic concert performance by the great Charles Mingus.

They sometimes call it the "jazz capital of the world, " but in 1971 the scene in New York for live jazz was pretty dead. Thankfully, today a myriad of clubs in New York feature jazz, and jazz fans enjoy a regular cycle of jazz concerts in major venues. But in the early seventies there were only a handful of jazz clubs, notably, the venerable Village Vanguard and Slugs (known for being the place where Lee Morgan was shot and killed). There were virtually no jazz concerts of importance taking place. Somehow we got the idea that we could do something to bring jazz back. We decided to produce a week-long series of jazz events at a major concert hall, combining jazz with other arts and media.

We soon came to the realization that the concept was too ambitious, that rather than focusing on the music, our efforts would be diverted by the necessity of raising money, of which ew had virtually none. Instead, we decided to focus on the more realistic objective of producing a single concert, New York's first full-blown jazz concert in many years.

We struggled with the selection of an artist with whom we could sell enough tickets to cover our investment and whose performance would attract the public attention we were seeking. As each of us had been fans of Charlie Mingus' music, we talked about presenting him, but there were a host of reasons for rejecting the idea. Mingus' reputation for being a volatile personality was well known. In the sixties, at the old Five Spot on the Bowery, we ourselves had witnessed Mingus storming into the club well after the time scheduled for the set and watched with amazement as he berated musicians and patrons alike. We had heard the story of his punching his trombone player Jimmy Knepper in the mouth. His famous Town Hall concert of 1962 was also on our minds, where Mingus continued to write out parts for his musicians on the Town Hall stage in front of the amazed paying concert audience. We recalled our experience in 1965 when we actually had a brief telephone conversation with Mingus. We were inquiring about Mingus' interest in doing a concert for the Hunter College Jazz Society and it was a conversation, filled with nonsequiturs, which seemed to go nowhere. Mingus was saying that he didn't want to do concert music, he wanted to play music for dancing. "I don't mean any of that Lester Lanin shit," he said, but he didn't seem to grasp the great opportunity that the Jazz Society believed it had to offer.

Despite his reputation--and our conversation--by 1971 Mingus' autobiography Beneath The Underdog had been published by Knopf; he was re-signed by Columbia Records and Alvin Ailey had choreographed some of his music. We decided to pursue our idea by sounding out his editor at Knopf about Mingus' state of mind. Could we work with him? His editor encouraged us to contact his manager Susan Graham, who would later become Charles' wife.

Charles Mingus hadn't performed a concert in New York in nearly a decade, but Sue told us he was up for it and wanted to work with us (she also told us it was Charles, not Charlie! ). A sort of partnership was establsihed for organizing the concert. We worked out a deal with Mingus with terms for his performance, which, considering Mingus' tough reputation, was truly amazing. We agreed to pay all the expenses for organizing and promoting the concert; Mingus would perform with his band, with a guaranteee of nothing, other than to receive 50% of the profits, if there were any.

With a five hundred dollar deposit we were able to hold February 4, 1972 as our date for the concert at Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall). Most people thought we were crazy, that the concert would be a disaster; there was no audience for jazz, Mingus would be impossible to work with and we'd lose all our money. Nevertheless, the concert would prove to be truly historic, musically without question, but also for achieving the intended goal of renewing the New York jazz scene, and planting the seed for the burgeoning jazz activity to come. The parties involved seemed to catch our youthful, slightly naive enthusiasm. columbia Records, which was about to release a new Mingus album, titled Let My Children Hear Music, saw this concert as a vehicle to sell records and later as an opportunity to record a live album. We were put in touch with Jim Tyrell, then Mingus' product manager at Columbia who helped get the ball rolling with some cooperative advertising plans. At that time, Bruce Lundvall, a huge jazz fan, was VP of Marketing for Columbia. When Tyrell told Lundvall about the concert, things really began to take shape and expand.

Thinking about how many tickets we needed to sell, we suggested that the concert feature a major guest soloist. Without hesitation, Mingus said he wanted Sonny Rollins. It wasn't to be. Sonny couldn't be persuaded to come out of temporary retirement. (Such a collaboration would take place several years later, however, when Sonny, made a triumphant return to Carnegie Hall. Mingus answered the call to fill in for Freddie Hubbard, who at the last minute cancelled as Sonny Roillins' guest soloist. Mingus was a little miffed when he arrived backstage at Carnegie Hall and discovered that Dizzy Gillespie also answered the emergency call, but they both performed with Sonny for an incredible concert which, unfortunately, was not recorded).

The great tenor sax player, Gene Ammons, was next on Mingus' wish list. Ammons, who had also been absent from the scene for many years, accepted the invitation. Lundvall and Tyrell then took the concert one step further by agreeing to pay for a full big band. Arriving at the first rehearsal of an incredible band composed of such greats as Gerry Mulligan, Milt Hinton and Lee Konitz, it was like dying and going to jazz heaven. Charles had written a special piece for trumpet great Roy Eldridge, but when Eldridge was unable to perform he brought in teenager Jon Faddis, now conductor and musical director of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, to make his debut playing the Eldridge part. Columbia decided to record this historic event and brought in Teo Macero to conduct the band and record the concert. Still thinking about how many seats we needed to fill at Philharmonic Hall, we suggested to Mingus that we try to get his friend Bill Cosby to emcee the concert. He agreed to host the concert and to let us bill it as "Bill Cosby presents..." (which we thought might sell a few more tickets than "Lokin, Weiner and Willenson present...")

To everyone's surprise (including ours) the concert turned out to be the hottest ticket in town, selling out in advance. Such jazz luminaries as Stan Getz, Ornette Coleman and George Wein were in the audience. Backstage was bursting at the seams with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Lee Morgan; Dizzy, hornless, wound up scat singing in an impromptu walk-on.

The concert was a great success, both musically and commercially, and was the forerunner for many more great things in jazz. George Wein was so taken by the success of the event that it solidified his own thinking about bringing the Newport Jazz Festival to New York. Not long after the Philharmonic Hall concert Wein announced the inauguration of the Festival in New York which was to become an institution, a multi-venue two week event which, as it turned out, had many similarities in scope to our original concept for bringing jazz back to New York. Well, with Mingus' help, perhaps we did. The concert reignited Mingus' recording and performing career. Columbia produced a great 2-LP recording. Lokin and Weiner started a concert production company called New Audiences which for more than twenty five years has presented virtually every major jazz artist in concert.

--Julie Lokin and Art Weiner, August 1996 (from liner notes of Columbia's release, 'Charles Mingus And Friends In Concert)




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