Let me say right at the outset that I am not the right person to write about the musical heritage of Northeast Pennsylvania, although I’m not certain anyone is. It’s simply too much! What I find intriguing is that no one, as far as I know, has attempted to write a comprehensive history of our region’s love affair with music, and that’s a shame.
Part of it, I’m sure, has to do with our patchwork of ethnicity. Our musical roots go back to the British Isles, Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean region, as well as closer to home, as a result of the labor movement and other social upheavals. I don’t know why, but the region embraced jazz and the Big Band Era in a truly unique fashion. A brief survey of the folks who played at Fernbrook Park–– an amusement park and dance hall that was located just near Dallas on the site of Offset Paperback–– reads like a musical hall of fame for the 1930s and early ‘40s. Cab Calloway, Sammy Kaye, Russ Morgan, Paul Whiteman, and many other luminaries played at the park prior to its closing in 1946.
But this was no flash in the pan. For many years, Hanson’s Amusement Park held forth with the likes of Chubby Checker, the Supremes, and Frankie Valli, as well as local favorites like Joe Nardone & the All-Stars and Eddie Day and the Starfires. In a later incarnation, the park hosted Willie Nelson and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Still later,
the present-day venues at the Kirby Center, Montage Mountain, and the arena in Plains Township (I’ve lost track of what it’s name is today.) hosted Dylan, James Taylor (with and without Carole King), Allison Krauss, Joan Baez, and John Prine. Wilkes-Barre was, remarkably, the first stop on the Simon & Garfunkel reunion tour. (And, I have the t-shirt to prove it.)
The preceding highlights are just the ones on my personal radar screen, having grown up in a household in which Big Bands were often in competition with the 1950’s and 1960’s rise of folk music. I vividly remember the first summer that WARM, the Mighty 590, came on the air with its Five Powersome Towers, much to my father’s dismay.
My point about all this is that, to use an unforgivable phrase, these hills were truly alive with the sound of music! They always have been and they always will be. And, we at the Cultural Council, along with some like-minded partners, are about to celebrate that in a big way. With the help of Downtown Arts, Arts YOUniverse, PA Jazz Alliance, the Luzerne County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, Charles Havira, the Riverfront Parks Committee, Rivercommon.org, and others–– the list grows daily,––we are going to create some-thing that, for some odd reason, the Wyoming Valley has never had– an annual music festival.
On February 23, 1951, the first jazz festival in the United States was held in the Redington and Hart Hotels here in Wilkes-Barre. On its 60th anniversary, in February of 2011, we’re going to hold a gala jazz concert to commemorate the anniversary of that momentous event, and that’s just the beginning. We envision this to be merely the kick-off for a season of performances in many genres (not just jazz) and on multiple venues, with the principle venue being the wonderful new stages at the River Common. Our vision is to end the season with a major event in September (after the colleges are back in session) and then do the whole thing all over again in 2012.
Stay “tuned” for more!