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CONNECTIONS: The Music Inn, Tanglewood’s antithesis next door

For a time the Berkshire Music Center stood a neighbor to the Lenox School for Jazz; the BSO played next door to Anita O’Day and Lena Horne.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the twenty-first century.

There was a time when cultural clashes were not on the grounds of Tanglewood (See last week’s Connections: Culture Tangles at Tanglewood). The clashes occurred with the next door neighbors.

On Hawthorne Street in Stockbridge were both the Lion’s Gate into Tanglewood and the entrance to The Music Inn. The music heard on a summer night at the two venues could not have been more different and yet the components of the programs and the dedication of the audiences were the same.

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The Music Barn at the Music Inn. Courtesy Music Inn archives

It was the 1950s. Two New Yorkers came to the Berkshires and set up shop. They were Philip and Stephanie Barber: he of the New York theater district; she a singer. They liked jazz.

Now jazz was the province of the Black community: Mahalia Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Satchmo, Ella, and many more. The fifties were not known for liberalism, tolerance, or acceptance so “their music” was not quite acceptable. Some called the decade the “frightened fifties” and others called it frightful (“Grease” notwithstanding.)

The summer concerts in The Shed continued as the Barbers launched a concert series in The Music Barn. While at Tanglewood men wore suits and women wore dresses and nylon stockings and the classical music school flourished, next door dress was more casual and the “schooling” was in the form of loud arguments in the “roundtables.” For a time the Berkshire Music Center stood a neighbor to the Lenox School for Jazz; the BSO played next door to Anita O’Day and Lena Horne. Perhaps the style was different but the dedication to the work was the same.

Tony Scott, Olatunji and Marshall Stearns in 1952 at the Music Inn.
Tony Scott, Olatunji and Marshall Stearns in 1952 at the Music Inn.

The Barbers purchased the deHeredia estate, Wheatleigh. It was large and had many buildings: the house, the barn, the potting shed, and more. However, when those rooms were filled, the problems began. There were few places off the grounds that would welcome Black guests. There were few in the Berkshires that took the music seriously and appreciated the performances at the Music Inn. Most preferred Tanglewood.

The Barbers persisted for a decade, and more than one writer – Seth Rogovoy, Jeremy Yudkin, John Gennari — is of the opinion that the Barbers contributed to Jazz becoming legitimate if not mainstream.

In 1961 that phase was over. The new owner, Don Soviero fostered American music – jazz with Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong and Monk but also folk with Pete Seeger, Don McLean, and an unknown kid named Bob Dylan. Interesting how many musicians played first at the Music Inn and later on the stage of The Shed.

Bonnie Raitt performing at the Music Inn. Courtesy of Music Inn Archives
Bonnie Raitt performing at the Music Inn. Courtesy of Music Inn Archives

On September 13, 2015 at Bascom Lodge on Mt. Greylock there will be a Music Inn reunion. The period being celebrated is probably less the 1950s and 1960s and more the 1970s.

On July 4, 1970 – 20 years to the day after his father did, Arlo Guthrie opened at the Music Inn. The new owner was David Rothstein and a memorable almost-decade began.

The press was positive. The venue was comfortable; the atmosphere relaxed; the production values good, and a larger audience was predicted. Boy — were they right!

The audiences grew, the volume was amped up, and Rothstein spent a lot of time in court and before selectboards.

The place was beloved. It was about the music, sure, but it was the atmosphere and the sense of community. It was a community strong enough, rich enough, memorable enough to rate a reunion.

The list of performers was impressive: The Band and Springsteen, the Allman Brothers, Bon Jovi, Elton John, and Bonnie Raitt. And yet, everyone who talks about it talks more about the feeling than the sound.

In 1979 the Music Inn closed. Rothstein, an architect, developed the property. Condos replaced venues; the physical components that made the experience were erased but not the memory.

Why did the Music Inn finally close after three decades? There were the complaints and the lawsuits. Tanglewood awoke to the interest in popular music and offered competition, but more than anything that happened off the grounds it was what happened on the grounds that killed the dream. The audience became rowdy – the atmosphere changed. The party was over. Those who were there, those who remember, say it was “the day the music died.”

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