The Mount's Music After Hours: A not-so-best-kept secret in the Berkshires music scene

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LENOX — The cost to attend one of The Mount's Music After Hours concerts is $0.

In an economic environment that reveres "growth," you might assume that holding these free jazz concerts is merely a promotional strategy, that a price hike is inevitable. But The Mount has precisely the opposite intention, according to music curator and director of facilities and special events Ross Jolly.

By keeping Music After Hours free to the public, the organization not only reduces the need for policing the grounds and, as a result, its operating costs, but the free admission also manages visitors' expectations for a series that has humble origins, Jolly said.

"We couldn't live up to [it]," Jolly said when explaining why the organization hadn't started charging for tickets.

The Mount has a problem, though: its strategy is, at least in part, failing.

The buzz surrounding the series has been growing since the concerts began seven or eight years ago, according to Jolly, and with this rise in interest ultimately comes heightened expectations. The Wanda Houston Band opened this year's series on Saturday, July 1, to approximately 400 spectators, packing the terrace of Edith Wharton's old home and spilling out onto the surrounding lawns even as a downpour drenched the area. Jolly said the attendance was around the average for concerts in recent years, though a Wanda Houston performance last summer drew a record 700-plus.

"She's one of our big draws. I usually try to get her to open and close the season," Jolly said while directing traffic prior to the series' kick-off.

This year's lineup will also include Benny Sharoni, an accomplished saxophonist from Boston, who will play with his quartet on Friday, July 14, and Friday, Aug. 18.

"He's amazing," Jolly said of Sharoni, who has played in two prior series at The Mount.

A more recent addition was saxophonist Charles Neville, who will team up with Berkshire Country Day teacher Jon Suters and others on Saturday, Aug. 26. Jolly appreciates drawing the big names, but he still wants the series to primarily feature local musicians.

"There's [an] incredibly rich bunch of people in the jazz world here who don't have that many venues to play at," he said.

Jolly also prioritizes instrumental jazz and those working on original material over musicians who plan to focus on the Great American Songbook, for example.

"A lot of people who do that type of music are sure that it's the right fit, and after this amount of time, I'm pretty sure that it's not," Jolly said.

Houston is a notable exception. Though she ran through a number of familiar hits, including Cole Porter's (and Ella Fitzgerald's) "Too Darn Hot," Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" and Amy Winehouse's "Rehab," her vocals were distinctly her own, enthralling the spectators for a third consecutive summer at The Mount. Houston, who will return on Saturday, Aug. 5, said the venue is special because of its history — she has loved Edith Wharton since first reading "The House of Mirth" — and the audience's energy. Before her concert, she correctly predicted that it would rain, a common theme during her sets at The Mount, and that the weather wouldn't curb the audience's enthusiasm.

"They really do go with the flow," she said.

From the beginning, the event had the feel of a rowdy, secretive and elaborate high-school house party for adults. Just after 4:30 p.m., event staff began quietly ushering a line of cars to parking lots at the end of a winding driveway (though regulars knew to get there before then). Spectators then navigated to the far end of the house, where a wrap-around, covered terrace overlooks the immaculate lawns. There, the band began playing at 5 p.m. adjacent to a bar serving wine, beer and other beverages. Around the corner, Lucia's Latin Kitchen of Pittsfield served up empanadas, fried plantains, kebabs, chicken with rice, dirty rice and Latin vegetables, all for $6 or less. It's the third summer The Mount will play host to Lucia's; the organization used to handle both food and drink, but it only manages the latter now.

"We do really well at the bar," Jolly said.

Perhaps this success contributed to the enthusiastic dancing among couples throughout the evening, twirling between wooden tables on the terrace. Houston's performance was a bigger factor, though; many of the spectators were Houston fanatics. Joyce and Peter Nelson of Pittsfield, who had snagged their customary seats at the top of the terrace stairs facing the band, try to see Houston wherever she plays. They have been coming to the Music After Hours series for the past three summers. When they first started attending, they felt like it was a secret. That is no longer the case.

"I think it's well-known, but I think it's still rising," Joyce Nelson said.

Even someone who didn't like jazz was enjoying the evening. Shortly after 6 p.m., Martha McCormack was touring the French Flower Garden when the band began its second set.

"It's not really my style," the Fairhaven resident said of the group's music. McCormack and her husband, Brian, travel to the Berkshires every summer during the weekend before the Fourth of July. They had visited The Mount for the first time the previous day and decided to make it two days in a row. On both occasions, McCormack was captivated by the home's surroundings.

"This is unbelievable, what a beautiful place this is," she said.

The stunning setting is why Jolly once felt it was a waste not to use the grounds on weekend nights. He recalled chatting with others on the terrace about this seven or eight years earlier.

"We were all talking about how insane it seemed that nothing was happening here on a Friday or Saturday night when the place was all dressed up with nowhere to go," he said.

Molly McFall, The Mount's librarian at that time, suggested that Jolly, who had flirted with pursuing a music career earlier in life, form a jazz trio with her husband and son, and start playing for free on those nights, according to Jolly. She named them Newbold Jones, Wharton's maiden name. Initially, 30 spectators was a good draw.

"It was all word-of-mouth," Jolly said.

But with the help of the well-connected Suters, who curated the series until other commitments made it too cumbersome, the series started attracting better bands. Jolly stressed that the events' timing helps, too. The sets are scheduled to end at 8 p.m., leaving time for people to make it to later shows at Tanglewood or other nearby venues.

"We're not in competition with anyone," Jolly said.

If that's the case, Music After Hours won't stop growing anytime soon.

IF YOU GO

What: Music After Hours

When: Fridays and Saturdays through the end of August, 5-8 p.m.

Where: The Mount, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox

Tickets: Free

Information: 413-551-5111, edithwharton.org


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