With the recent 50th anniversary of the NY 1964-65 World’s Fair, Jazz’s involvement in it is a fascinating exploration. While nowhere near as prevalent as in at the 1939-40 Fair, and though no longer America’s pop music, it was still very well known, and its major artists stars. Those who participated reflected both the attitudes of the Fair organizers, as well as public taste, and illustrate the state of Jazz in the mid 1960s.
Opening on April 22, 1964 it was a showcase of mid-century technology and culture. Unfortunately for Jazz though, organizer Robert Moses’ musical tastes were rather conservative, and he preferred Guy Lombardo to most Jazz artists. None-the-less, Jazz could be heard at the fair in a few areas, and somewhat isolated instances. The Louisiana State Pavilion featured a reproduction of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, complete with amusements, food, shopping, and Jazz. Those performing included Gene Krupa, Al Morell’s Organ trio, with singer Barbara Russell, and Danny Barker as part of the Riverboat Ramblers.
Though very busy at this time, Louis Armstrong made a special appearance at the Fair on June 30, which was designated as “Louis Armstrong Day!” Living only a short distance away, in Corona, Queens, Armstrong toured the fair grounds that afternoon, greeting fans, and performed a concert that evening at the recently opened Singer Bowl (which, ironically, about 10 years later, would be re-dedicated as Louis Armstrong Stadium). Pops performed to very enthusiastic crowds, with the evening climaxing in encores of his recent hit “Hello Dolly!”
The Dukes of Dixieland, an ensemble very popular with the traditional Jazz revival of the 1950s and 60s performed at the Fair regularly. The Band included Frank Assunto, Gene Schroeder, and Barrett Deems. A free attraction, the Dukes performed early Jazz repertoire, but were responsible for performing regularly the theme song of the NY 1964-65 World’s Fair – composed by Richard Rodgers(!) – “Fair Is Fair”. The Dukes of Dixieland’s final album under their prestigious liaison with Columbia Records tied in with the Fair and was entitled “Struttin’ At The World’s Fair”.
The most contemporary Jazz association with the World’s Fair was with Dave Brubeck. Brubeck composed and recorded at least two songs with direct connections, “Unisphere,” (named for the Fair’s icon), and “World’s Fair,” (both 1963). In fact - Brubeck performed the former in a promotional film for Clairol entitled “Hair Styles and Fair Styles,” which was filmed at the Fair’s Top restaurant, just before opening day. The Brubeck Quartet also performed at the Singer Bowl on August 5th, ‘64 sharing the bill with none other than Duke Ellington! The double bill of these two masters proved a huge draw, and that, coupled with the fact it was free, made it one of the most well attended, and most overt display of Jazz at the exposition.
Most of these Jazz artists, who made appearances at the 1964 version of the Fair did not reappear the following year. That Ben Webster only performed at the 1964 – 1965 NY World’s Fair the first year is the anomaly as Webster moved to Europe in ’65, but almost nobody returned to the stage for the 1965 component of the fair; another indication of the dwindling status of Jazz in the 1960s.
And the Fair was having its own problems and was ultimately a financial failure. Yes, attendance was high but far below projections. The organizers lost a lot of money.
Exploring Jazz’s intersections with the types of events that the NY 1964-65 World’s Fair is a grand scale example of, provides a fascinating way to chart the music’s own path; particularly public reception of it. Looking back one might seem astonished that neither Miles Davis, nor John Coltrane was invited to participate. Was the oversight an aesthetic, cultural, commercial, political, or personal decision by the Fair’s organizers? The use of Jazz in 1964, followed by its near total absence in the World’s Fair’s second year represents an economic interpretation. There was, nevertheless, a limited line-up of Jazz attractions whatever the marquee value of the NY 1964-65 World’s Fair biggest Jazz names.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]