Summer School

A new documentary examines the legendary Music Inn and School of Jazz
CODA Issue 334

By Ken Waxman

Screening for the first time at film festivals this summer is Music Inn, a 102- minute documentary feature, focusing on the legendary facility near Lenox, Mass. For a decade beginning in 1951, concerts at Music Inn showcased top-flight, contemporary folk and jazz performer in a relaxed and rustic environment. More significantly for the history of improvised music, from 1957 to 1960 the progenitor of jazz summer camps, the School of Jazz, was located on-site, with students able to study with such visionary musicians as John Lewis, George Russell and Jimmy Giuffre.

Over four years in the making, the non-profit documentary includes around 40 interviews with many of the Music Inn’s participants including pianist Randy Weston, folk singers Pete Seeger, pianist Ran Blake, who attended the School of Jazz, and composer Gunther Schuller who was on the faculty. In addition, archival photos, and recorded music – some from never-before commercially released recordings – are included.

“Basically the music will be snippets of this and that, mostly to amplify the story line and various characters like Weston, [Thelonious] Monk, [Duke] Ellington, the MJQ etc.,” explains George Schuller, one of the three producer of the film. “I did try to make every selection relate to the Music Inn whether directly (recorded live) or indirectly (associated with).”

A drummer who leads his own Schulldogs band, Schuller heads the GM record label. The son of composer Schuller, a few years ago, he discovered a cache of rare tapes and an unreleased LP from the Music Inn at his father’s house. Immediately Schuller thought GM should release a box set of the material.

Searching for more documentation, he met Stephanie Barber, who owned the Inn with her husband Philip. She in turn introduced him to producer Ben Barenholtz, who had already started work on the documentary with Casey Meade, the initial director, and the three joined forces. Barenholtz, who previously co-produced such features as Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, soon took on directing duties, with Meade and Stephanie Sharis becoming co-producers. Tamino Castro is the film’s editor, with Schuller, as well as doing photo and footage research and selecting the music, writing part of the narrative along with Benjamin Barber, a University of Maryland professor and son of Philip Barber. A long-time jazz fan, Barenholtz, who makes his directorial debut with this film, ran the Village Theatre during the late 1960s and organized a famous concert that featured both John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

Music Inn, which was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and Berkshire International Film Festival in May and at the Munich Film Festival in late June, celebrates the cultural oasis which was the Music Inn during the 1950s and 1960s.

Defying many of the McCarthy Era’s conventions, the facility was a centre of racial and cultural harmony. The Inn had blacks and whites rooming side-by-side, and featured many performers with a left-wing bent. The Barbers – Stephanie died in 2003; Philip in 1980 – were public relations professionals. Their friends, included folklorist Alan Lomax, poet Langston Hughes and Marshall Stearns of the Institute for Jazz Studies.

Stearns-organized Jazz and Folk Roundtables and Jazz Workshops, were a feature of the Inn from its beginning. These sessions, which allowed traditional and modern musicians to explore the roots and nuances of jazz in conversation and music, eventually were joined by concerts in the Jazz Barn featuring jazz stars ranging from Duke Ellington to Dave Brubeck; singers like Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee; and even musical satirist Tom Lehrer.

With the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Lewis as the School of Jazz’s artistic director and its impressive roster of instructors, about 40 students a year paid the $350 tuition for the courses each August. The first academic setting where younger musicians could learn improvisation from working professionals, the School attracted not only North Americans, but attendees from Africa, South America, Europe, Europe and Asia.

Unfortunately, the Inn – and School – was a victim of its own success. Burned out from running an inn, feeding over 100 guests a night, booking artists and overseeing the School, the Barbers sold the facility in 1960. As the summer festival opportunities increased, the faculty had already become less available, notes Schuller. “Folks like Dizzy [Gillespie], Max [Roach] and [Kenny] Dorham were less likely to give up their summers to teach for free for three weeks at a time.

“It was also too early for the general jazz community to accept a serious three-week intensive with a set of thought-provoking practitioners likes John Lewis, Gunther Schuller, J. J. Johnson, and George Russell. [The School] was way ahead of it time, seeing as it took a few more years before the summer jazz camps really took hold.”

In terms of Music Inn the documentary however, while a wealth of background information preserved by Stephanie Barber helps tell the story, as does a multitude of photographs taken at the school, original “[film] footage was our biggest challenge …not much out there,” notes Schuller. In the end two film bits from 1953 and 1957 were included. A third from the Today show was “worthy of being in the film if it wasn't for the nasty costs regarding TV archival material.”

Overall, the film, narrated by Benjamin Barber, manages to situate the facility’s 10-year history within the context of the Cold War, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights movement as well as mid-century jazz’s simultaneous search for roots and evolution.

“I was always fascinated with the late 1950s going into the early 1960s, so this project allowed me to return to that part of history in jazz and politics and to see how it all intertwined and related through music,” explains Schuller. “I also learned so much about the early days of jazz and folk scholarship and what the Roundtables meant to those folks in their quest to codify a complicated and still changing subject.”

With proceeds from the film earmarked for a scholarship in Stephanie Barber’s name, the educational component of the Music Inn’s mission continues. At the same time, audiences can learn about the facility’s history from Music Inn.

Sidebar One:

The Music Inn Recordings

Over the years several LPs were recorded at the Inn, including two featuring the Modern Jazz Quartet with guest artist Sonny Rollins or Jimmy Giuffre and another showcasing Max Roach with Harold Farberman and the Boston Percussion Ensemble. This is just the tip of the audio iceberg George Schuller explains. Besides recordings of student and faculty concerts there are performances of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and bluesman John Lee Hooker, to name two, and such gems as clarinetist Tony Scott improvising with African drummer Olatunji and pianist Billy Taylor jamming with cornetist Rex Stewart.

Schuller’s initial plan to release a box set of Music Inn recordings “has been put on hold until I can come up for air,” he admits. “The movie kind of took over.” Complicating the situation is that more audio material has been found; some housed at the Institute of Jazz at Rutgers University the rest in various collections including those of Stephanie and Benjamin Barber, who owned the Inn and conductor/composer Gunther Schuller. “We still need to jump some hurdles clearance-wise with all those live performances from the likes of Ornette [Coleman], Freddie Hubbard, Don Ellis, Steve Kuhn, and others,” he adds.

Considering the sessions include such material as School of Jazz faculty members like clarinetist Giuffre and pianist John Lewis Heath playing with students such as saxophonist Ornette Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry, early in their careers, the tracks are of historical as well as musical interest. Plus, adds Schuller “there are a few other surprises which may or may not surface commercially down the line.”

Sidebar Two:

Some Instructors at the School of Jazz

Marshall Stearns

Gunther Schuller

Dizzy Gillespie

J. J. Johnson

Kenny Dorham

Max Roach

George Russell

Oscar Peterson (with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown as artists in residence)

Jimmy Giuffre (with Jim Hall and Ralph Pena [1957] or Hall and Bob Brookmeyer [1958, 1959] as artists in residence

John Lewis (with the Modern Jazz Quartet as artists in residence all four years)

Dave Brubeck (artist in residence [1956] and with Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright, Joe Morello [1959])

Sidebar Three:

Some Students at School of Jazz

Ornette Coleman

Don Cherry

Steve Kuhn

Don Ellis

Dave Baker

Perry Robinson

Ran Blake