Jazzed Up

For four days starting on July 29, 1960, Evansville hosted a total of 15 entertainment acts, including the late Dinah Washington, Benny Goodman, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and Cannonball Adderley at the Indiana Jazz Festival. The event took place in response to French Lick, Ind.’s decision to cancel its leg of the World Jazz Series broadcasted live by CBS Television. The resort town made its decision after watching the live broadcast of riots at the world-famous Newport, R.I., Jazz Festival on July 2, 1960.

The riots were caused by an intoxicated mob seeking access to the sold-out festival. Yet here in Evansville, Hal Lobree saw an opportunity. The young geologist/oilman and jazz fan, a Texas native, approached then-mayor Frank McDonald Sr. and other civic leaders about hosting the concert at Roberts Stadium in Evansville. Given the go-ahead, Lobree notified the organizers at French Lick that indeed Evansville would roll out the red carpet to host the series of jazz greats.

Gene Lees, the editor of the classic jazz magazine, Down Beat, came in early and agreed to emcee the whole weekend. Evansville Police Chief Darwin Covert and Vanderburgh County Sheriff Gresham Grim marshaled their forces, canceling vacations for local law enforcement. Wealthy local residents offered up their homes to house the visiting musicians.

The concert was such a rousing success that the late great Dinah Washington performed an extra night. Traveling jazz fanatics slept on cots in the cooler woods near the stadium. Lees reported in a summer edition of Down Beat what a progressive and welcoming city Evansville was. “Make no mistake: if this festival is handled well this year and next (and, evidently, tickets have sold so well that a repeat performance already looks inevitable), it can make America conscious of Evansville.”

Newport realized the error of its ways and reinstated its festival in 1962. The Indiana Jazz Festival, meanwhile, continued for just one more year and featured Duke Ellington, Mel Tormé, and others before eventually ending its run due to low audience turnout. Still, Lobree was awarded the Civitan Club’s “Outstanding Citizen Award” in 1960 for his efforts to bring national attention to his adopted home.

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