A mid-summer’s evening in 1970
It was a hot and sunny early evening in Central Park, July 31, 1970. I was at the Wolman’s Skating Rink in New York City, to see an outdoor concert. My Uncle Milt was bringing my cousin Wendy and me to one of my first rock concerts. It had been a month since my final piano lesson as a young conservatory student. I had spent my previous six years of weekends at the Julliard School of Music and, after it moved downtown, one final year, at Manhattan School of Music, which had assumed residency in the building.
That I would attend a rock concert was highly unusual. Well, it had been highly unusual until this summer. Only a few months prior, my musical life had been turned around when I first heard Jimi Hendrix. After years of musical exposure limited to Classical music, where I had grown bored and disaffected, these new musical sounds shocked and surprised me. What captivated me about Hendrix was the tightrope walk I felt he took with every note, wavering between pitch and noise. I was more excited than words can explain. My musical future was clear: leave Julliard in search of these new sounds. This, plus my Uncle’s eagerness to explore new things with his children and nephews explains my attendance at the concerts in Central Park.
Drummer Billy Hart’s recollection is that as I traveled to the concert, he was spending the afternoon exploring Central Park, anticipating his first gig with the Herbie Hancock Sextet. With only a brief announcement: “The Schaefer Musical Festival Welcomes Herbie Hancock and his Sextet,” the band went on like clockwork at the stroke of 7pm. We were sitting in the higher priced $3.50 seats in the orchestra section. The audience was thin, with people milling in as the band played. They were coming to hear the headline band, Iron Butterfly, eagerly anticipating the band’s signature drum solo on their single hit tune, Ina Gadda Da Vida, and showed little interest in the unusual display taking place at this moment. On the stage, in front of a largely white audience in their teens and early 20s, was a group of black musicians, intensely focused. The opened like a whirlwind, or maybe surging ocean waves lapping at a cliff. The saxophonist (probably Bennie Maupin, but possibly still Joe Henderson; I have further research to do on this) played intense, surging, jagged, long melodic lines. The rhythm section of Billy Hart and bass player Buster Williams were right on his heels, nudging him ever forward. The ballad Maiden Voyage slowed down the pace, allowing the two brass players to stretch out, with longer tones, seemingly well in keeping with this lazy summer night.
This was my first experience hearing a jazz ensemble perform live. My previous experience of jazz was limited to my father’s Count Basie records, particularly ones featuring his favorite singers Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. There was actually one other prescient experience relevant to the topic at hand. I had also heard Miles Davis’ newly released ‘Bitches Brew’ just a few months prior. At the time, still a conservatory student and still reeling from hearing Hendrix, I found “Bitches Brew” (which I soon came to totally love) baffling. It was something for which I had no reference point or moorings. The Herbie Hancock Sextet was more accessible, even captivating. Yet the air was thick was pungent smoke, the audience talking loudly as they ignored the performers on stage, and it was difficult to focus on the music at hand. I found Iron Butterfly to be a bore and thus the memory of the evening quickly faded. Faded until I stumbled upon a flier for the concert a few months ago, while researching this book.