When Lenny And Isaac Played Westport

Because the my baby boom generation is so obnoxiously self-important — and because we still cling to control of much of the media — throughout this decade we will insist on foisting 50-year anniversary stories about a mind-numbing number of 1960s events on the rest of the country.

We’ve remembered John Glenn’s orbit of the earth and John Kennedy’s assassination. Next month is the Beatles’ 1st trip to America. On the horizon: the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Soupy Sales’ “The Mouse.”

So — as Martin Luther King Day nears — this is a good time to remember another 50th anniversary: the night Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern played together for the 1st time in public.

It was half a century ago this August. It was a benefit for the Student Nonviolent  Coordinating Committee. And it happened in the Staples High School auditorium.

Leonard Bernstein, back in the day...

Leonard Bernstein, back in the day…

According to the New York Times of August 31, 1964, the concert’s genesis came from Tracy Sugarman. The Westport artist and civil rights activist — who died a year ago, the day before Martin Luther King Day — described his recent “Mississippi Summer” work in Ruleville, Mississippi to Frank Brieff, conductor of the New Haven Symphony.

Brieff called Bernstein, who called Stern. The 2 had played piano and violin together for pleasure, but had never performed in public together.

They were joined by 4 other Fairfield county musicians. The concert sold out, at prices from $3 to $35. That raised $8,250 bringing Westport’s 1964 contributions to the Mississippi Project to $29,000. Previous fundraisers for the NAACP and National Council of Churches included a townwide solicitation, and a small gathering at the home of attorney Alan Nevas. He had just returned from Mississippi where, the Times said, he provided “legal counsel to Negroes.”

Nevas’ son Bernard — age 20 — was one of 6 “freedom workers” honored at the Bernstein/Stern concert. Five were from Westport: Nevas; John Friedland, 22; Martha Honey, 19; Deborah Rand, 20, and John Suter, 19.

...and Isaac Stern.

…and Isaac Stern.

Another guest introduced at the concert was Charles McLaurin. Just a few days earlier, he was a member of the controversial Mississippi Freedom Party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

Also at the concert, Sugarman displayed 43 pen-and-ink drawings of Mississippi, and 6 photos used by SNCC. He called the involvement of youths like the ones from Westport courageous.

“They went there afraid, lived there afraid and worked there afraid,” Sugarman said.

But, the Times noted, “the experience has affected some so deeply…they are torn between resuming their college careers and going back to Mississippi.”

(Hat tip to Fred Cantor for research.)

6 responses to “When Lenny And Isaac Played Westport

  1. Truly astounding. I remember the concert but at 12 years old I had no idea of its significance.

  2. Wow, I seem to remember my parents talking about this as my mother was a violinist and it was big news for the town — what a time in Westport that won’t come around again. I was a 2nd grader at Saugatuck El in Mrs. Sheets’ class in 1964. She was quite amazing in her way, unforgettable, and sometimes inappropriate (really funny) for current times but I learned from her. I do remember workbooks being flung across the room, or a head poked pretty hard with a stubby finger from time to time when someone didn’t give the right answer but she was awesome! Wouldn’t fly today sorry to say. But another big difference from then and now — parents weren’t filing in to the school board as they might today to get her out for scaring their kids — she was too great.

    C’mon Dan, the reason those years are held up and held on to is because– sorry, they were better! :) Let’s see, Janis Joplin vs. Miley Cyrus — for starters. JFK vs. well anyone fill in the blank there. and you get the idea — one could compare endlessly. There was so much hope in those days for a better world – far less distractions, more human contact vs social media face time. Those were golden years spent in Westport, unforgettable and they need to be documented endlessly here at 06880. Our kids don’t feel that kind of belonging as much as we did then — community meant family – in all it’s dysfunction. It was home and family. It’s disappearing so keep reminding us.

  3. Catherine Onyemelukwe, conyemelukwe@gmail.com; Thanks for this charming story about an important event in Westport and showing me more about Westport’s connection to the civil rights struggle.

  4. I forwarded your post on Lenny and Issac to Barbara Haws, who is the archivist at the NY Philharmonic. Barbara and I have worked together on several Bernstein related projects (with me as art director) including a CD set “Bernstein Live,” and a book “Leonard Bernstein, American Original”. She loved the story about Westport and the civil rights connection but said Bernstein and Stern had in fact appeared in public together several times before. Check out this link to the digital archives, which shows a concert program from December 1959:

    http://archives.nyphil.org/index.php/artifact/6d0e839e-45a6-40df-8611-f98543941146/fullview#page/1/mode/2up

    The NYP digital archives is an amazing (and free) resource which is well worth spending some time exploring!

    • Carole–I think the distinction here is that the Times article was reporting that it was the first time Bernstein and Stern had apparenty performed together in front of a paying audience where Bernstein was playing piano (and not conducting).

  5. At the risk of sounding like a nit picker, the cover of the 1959 program lists Bernstein as playing the harpsicord. In any case, the story is a great piece of Westport cultural history. Thanks Dan, for sharing it.