Our History

How The West Michigan Jazz Society Was Conceived

It was definitely a bad experience...any time you lose $4000, it qualifies as a really bad hair day. It wasn't the fault of the sax man, would be hard for someone like Stan Getz to give a poor performance, and he didn’t. We just did an inadequate job of advertising the gig.

It was May 1985 and Getz was booked to appear at Fountain Street Church for a money-raising concert to benefit the Jimmy Forrest Scholarship Fund. The scholarship fund was set up through Grand Rapids Junior (now Community) College after Forrest’s untimely death in August 1980. The purpose of the program was to award monies to students majoring in jazz studies, and to present an annual Memorial Concert as a fund-raiser for the scholarship.

Under the auspices of Ray Gill, then Director of Jazz Studies at the college, successful concerts were given in November 1980 with Yusef Lateef. Also, a 1981 concert at Welch Auditorium featured the Count Basie Orchestra, with whom Forrest had performed as lead tenor sax from 1970-77. The Heath Brothers appeared in 1982; the Basie Orchestra was back for an elaborate Black & White Ball at the Gerald Ford Gymnasium in 1983, and so on…until the disastrous 1985 “bad sax experience,” which drew an audience of less than 200. During this five-year period of time, the fund had awarded scholarships totaling $5,000, and such a big loss threatened the maintenance of the program.

“What we have here,” said Gill to the widow Forrest, “is a failure to communicate—“ and thus was born the idea of putting together a formalized support group for jazz in the Grand Rapids and West Michigan area. Gill had a list of 20 names of people who had formerly tried to establish a jazz support group. Coincidentally, the Jazz Times was running a series of articles on Jazz Societies that autumn, and featured an article about a new National Federation of Jazz Societies being formed. Taking Gill’s list, checking it twice to see who was nice, Betty Forrest sent out letters in January 1986 as “feelers.” The response was so good that a meeting was called (what else?) and a dozen hard-core jazz lovers showed up to form the nucleus of what soon became known as the West Michigan Jazz Society. By April the first edition of JazzNotes went out to an augmented list of 40 names. The first public meeting/gig was held in conjunction with founding member Bruce Early’s appearance with his Big band at Pockett’s. Membership rose to 50, then doubled to 100 in June after a fund-raising party at Jim & Nancy Gould’s residence. Jim Gould was “drafted” to be our first president and we were off and running!

And that, dear friends, is how the WMJS was born….

By Betty Forrest

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