Jazz in the Park: A Tradition of Superb Music
“If anyone would have told us we would be here 31 years later, we would have laughed out loud!”
That’s Lew Morrison, one of the founders of Jazz in the Park, reflecting on three decades of bringing outstanding jazz music to Staunton. And what a journey it’s been.
It all started when Phillip Nolley, a nationally known glassblower and musician, told Lew he wanted to start a weekly jazz event. Lew was all over the idea.
He, his wife Lisa, and Phillip spent about 40 hours every week to bring top jazz acts to the area. Short on manpower, Lew and Phillip would move Phillip’s electric grand piano down two flights of steps from Phillip’s studio.
Then they would transport it to the Gypsy Hill Park bandstand. After the concert, the two would haul that 400-500 pound piano back upstairs to Phillip’s studio.
Plus, they had to move all the other band equipment from the Park stage, too.
To advertise the week’s current lineup and its sponsors, Lew also created new signs every week.
Lisa, for her part, enlisted friends to make 55-gallon drums of popcorn to sell. “It just about killed us,” he joked.
The team also had to work around The Statler Brothers Happy Birthday USA event, which meant they had to move all of their equipment during the mid-summer festivities.
Much later, they would decide to start the Jazz in the Park season after The Statlers’ massive event. That proved to be a good move as the shorter season also cut down on manpower wear and tear!
Jazz in the Park Becomes A Civic Project
After two summers of non-stop work, the trio was wearing down under the weight of producing a weekly summer jazz event.
Fortunately, Providence intervened. Bruce Frank, a member of the Staunton Augusta Rotary Club, saw the good work the three were doing.
He also saw how much help they needed. That’s when the Club took on Jazz in the Park as a civic project, helping with fundraising and providing manpower.
“It saved us,” Morrison said. “We couldn’t have continued without them.”
And the Club continues to help them to this day. It’s the reason Jazz in the Park has been able to continue.
Phenomenal Jazz Acts
At one time, Jazz in the Park brought in 1,000 people each week.
“Now there are more activities to enjoy during the week at the Park. So our audience attendance ranges from 300-500. And we’re happy with that,” Lew said.
Estimated total audience attendance for the last 30 years is well over 150,000!
So who has played at Jazz in the Park? As Lew says, “We’ve had Grammy nominees with us on Thursday night, then (they) appear on Johnny Carson the next night.”
Here’s a sample of some of the Jazz in the Park performers:
- Hod O’Brien–Downbeat Magazine called him the last of the great bebop piano players
- Joe Kennedy–Top Downbeat jazz poll winner on jazz violin
- Bob McChesney–Top trombonist in Los Angeles
- John Fedchock–The Woody Herman Bandleader
Several members of the Dave Matthews Band–Carter Buford, LeRoi Moore, Tim Reynolds, and Stefan Lessard–have all played at Jazz in the Park (before DMB really took off.)
Musicians from the Buddy Rich Band and the Stan Kenton Band have also played there. To see clips of this year’s current performers, head on over to the Staunton Augusta Rotary Club’s website.
Military bands such as the world famous USAF Airmen of Note and the US Army Blues have graced the band stage.
Not surprisingly, Jazz in the Park, a free summer concert series, has received national awards from Rotary International.
The series has raised over $330,000 from local businesses and individual donors. Each year Jazz in the Park gives a $1000 Lew Morrison Scholarship to a local high school senior who is going to college to study music.
Will Jazz in the Park Continue?
At 75, you’d think Morrison would want to slow down. Lew says “No. The Rotary Club makes it so much easier. All I have to do is raise money and find bands. As long as I’m able, I’m going to keep going. I think it’s important to expose Staunton to good jazz music.”
Guests of the Inn at Old Virginia LOVE this free event. Listening to world-class jazz is a wonderful way to spend a summer evening. If you’d like to donate to Jazz in the Park, send your check to P.O. Box 731, Churchville, VA 24421.
In the meantime, come spend some summer time with us and enjoy extraordinary music!
Book your stay with us here.