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Laurel's racetrack hosted big-name jazz in 1960s

In a "History Matters" column almost four years ago, I wrote about the Laurel Pop Festival that took place in 1969 at what was then called Laurel Race Course. Many found it hard to believe Laurel hosted a rock festival that featured some of the biggest names of the time: Led Zeppelin, Sly and the Family Stone, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and others. The lineup included three acts that performed at Woodstock a month later, and a fourth that was scheduled, but they broke up right after the Laurel Pop Festival. In fact, seven performers or groups who played at Laurel are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and two have received Kennedy Center Honors.

The same promoters who staged the Laurel Pop Festival at the Laurel Race Course were also responsible for the Laurel Jazz Festival, which was held three summers in a row at the same venue. Incredibly, the lineups of acts for the Jazz Festivals were the equal of, or possibly surpassed, the Pop Festival.

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Elzie Street was an account executive at a Baltimore radio station in the 1960s who promoted local concerts on the side. His big break came when Sid Bernstein, the promoter of the Beatles' first U.S. tour, asked him to put together a jazz festival in Atlantic City in 1962. The festival was a success and Street became a full-time promoter. In 1966, he heard the Laurel Race Course was looking for ways to generate revenue during the off-season. Street later told the Baltimore Afro-American, "I pulled together a budget of $30,000-a-night for talent and did the festival in 1967." Street teamed with fellow Baltimorean Jim Browne and they formed Browne/Street Productions to produce the Laurel Jazz Festival.

Another important contact was made with George Wein, the godfather of jazz festivals. Wein, a jazz performer in his own right, was the mastermind behind the iconic Newport Jazz Festival, which had been running since 1954. Wein signed on as a performer at Laurel. Browne/Street also hired the manager of the Newport festival to produce the Laurel show using stage, sound and lighting equipment borrowed from Newport.

Jazz Runs at Laurel

Jazz Runs at Laurel, also known as the first annual Washington/Baltimore Jazz Festival, was held from Sept. 1-3, 1967. The promoters hired busses to shuttle people from the Baltimore Civic Center and Penn Station for the three days. Tickets were $10 for box seats, $5.50 for reserved seats and $3.50 for general admission to the infield grass.

Before the concerts, they also staged workshops with world-class musicians. Tickets to the workshops were $2. Street described them to the Baltimore Sun: "These workshops will be educational for people who don't understand jazz. They will actually see the musicians rehearsing songs in sections and then putting them together for a complete sound. They can see how a song is started and arranged, how instruments are mixed to get different sounds. For example, the musicians might take a song like 'How High the Moon' and put it in different tempos. They will probably talk while they rehearse — 'this isn't right, let's try another key' — until they put together a song."

Running the workshops were George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars, together with an international roster of jazz musicians.

Two of the four emcees hired for the festival are familiar to area listeners: Paul Anthony of WRC in Washington (now with PBS), and Bill Mayhew, from WMAL.

The first night, Friday, started off with Miles Davis and his quintet. The Sun said, "that is what they call starting off at the top." They were followed by the Jimmy Smith Trio, who then gave way to "Diz — America's Ambassador to Jazz," Dizzy Gillespie. The Sun summed up his performance: "His music was melodic, rhythmic, lyric, magnetic, unpredictable, abrupt, moody, and groovy." Finishing out the first night were the Gary Bartz Quintet, Etta Jones and Woody Herman and his Big Band.

Saturday's lineup was just as impressive: the Jimhmi Johnson Quintet, Art Blakey Sextet, Nina Simone, Horace Silver Quintet and Dave Brubeck Quartet, and finishing with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Big Band. The final night featured Blues Alley Five, Thelonious Monk, Gloria Lynne, Herbie Mann Octet, Modern Jazz Quartet and Clark Terry's Big Band.

Most sets ran about 45 minutes and each night's performance ran about 4 1/2 hours. Total attendance for the three nights was between 20,000 and 25,000, with another 1,000 attending the afternoon workshops.

At the conclusion, Street and Browne announced that the festival would continue in 1968.

'Operation Jazz 1968'

For the second annual festival, Street was now partnered with Jim Scott of Baltimore, and the promoters offered free admission to thousands of Baltimore children. The reasons for this, as Street told the Afro-American, was to "open the performances to youngsters through the teens who normally could not hear jazz because they are not old enough to frequent clubs where liquor is sold or because they lack the money." The initiative, dubbed "Operation Jazz 1968," was co-sponsored by the Baltimore Public Schools, who provided transportation and supervision for the students.

Prices were raised to $15 and $12 for reserved seats, and $10 for general admission. For parking, the Washington Post complained that "the fee of $1 a car seems excessive." A workshop was also offered again, this time run by Coleman Hawkins and his Band.

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The lineup for the second year was slightly different, probably influenced by George Wein. In his autobiography, "Myself Among Others," Wein, who by 1968 had been successfully organizing and promoting jazz festivals for 14 years, described how pop artists infiltrated jazz festivals: "Although I had always rejected rock personally, it was becoming clear to me that resistance was futile. I crossed the threshold, and began presenting rock groups alongside the usual jazz artists."

Unlike the 1967 festival, which was strictly jazz, 1968 included the pop group Fifth Dimension. Many artists from the year before returned in 1968: Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Herbie Mann, Thelonious Monk, Woody Herman, Jimmy Smith and Mel Lewis-Thad Jones. The new jazz acts were the Count Basie Big Band, Joe Williams, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderly, Gary Burton, Miriam Makeba, Art Farmer-Jimmy Heath Quintet, Arthur Prysock and Rufus Harley.

The second festival drew 31,000, which could have been more except for rain two of the days. The Sun also noted that traffic in Laurel was "jammed for hours." The performances were critically acclaimed, with the Sun proclaiming "As the cats say: It was a gas."

Out with a bang

Street and Scott were very busy in Laurel in 1969. They officially joined forces with Wein and produced three major festivals in Maryland: the Morgan State Jazz Festival, the third annual Laurel Jazz Festival and the Laurel Pop Festival.

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Wein's influence is reflected in a statement Street gave to the Sun: "The day has passed when you can have a strictly jazz festival. You have to have a music festival and mix jazz and pop or soul and jazz. We only have so many jazz fans. If you're gonna be in it financially, you're gonna have to broaden it."

For the third and final year, the lineup was more of a mix. Returnees from previous Laurel festivals included Gillespie, Silver, Mann, Lewis-Jones, Basie and Adderly. The new acts were Nancy Wilson, Eddie Harris, Mongo Santamaria, pop group Friends of Distinction, Sam and Dave, pop singer Roberta Flack, Buddy Rich Big Band, Fuzzy Kane Trio and Ramsey Lewis.

The final day was an afternoon concert by James Brown, the "Godfather of Soul." Street explained the early start to the Afro-American: "We wanted to have Brown's show in the afternoon so we could make it a family-type affair. With that show starting at 2 o'clock, everyone will have the kids home by six for dinner."

The 1969 Jazz Festival was the last one. It's unclear exactly why it stopped but money was certainly an issue. Despite good attendance, the first year saw a loss of $8,000. Profit was hard to come by with huge festivals. In Wein's book, he mentions that, "We had lost money as well in Detroit, at the Laurel Pop Festival in Maryland, and at the Rutgers Jazz Festival."

Street had also begun to tire of the festival format. After the raucous end to the Laurel Pop Festival, held two weeks before the jazz festival, when wooden chairs were set ablaze in a pile on the infield to warm the rain-soaked crowd, the promoters declared "They can have it" in response to whether it would return. Street told the Sun, "I think there's too many festivals right now."

Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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