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Remembering Charlie Bourgeois: 1919-2014

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An Arbiter of Good Taste in Music, Cuisine, Fashion and People Long-time Festival Public Relations Director April 27, 1919 – January 26, 2014

New York, NY – Charles Bourgeois, who directed public relations efforts for every festival and event produced by music impresario George Wein since the early 1950s, died Sunday, January 26, from injuries suffered after a fall in his home, it was announced by Newport Festivals Foundation, Inc. He was 94.

Born April 27, 1919, in Island Pond, Vermont, Mr. Bourgeois was a graduate of Boston University (BU), where he produced concerts and first met Mr. Wein. A devotee of piano jazz, as well as vocalists, he produced a well-received BU event featuring Lennie Tristano and Mary Lou Williams. Following a stint in the Army during World War II, he returned to Boston and began making the rounds on the social scene. Mr. Bourgeois visited Mr. Wein’s popular jazz club Storyville in Boston’s Copley Square Hotel regularly in 1951, often bringing music critics with him.

Mr. Wein wrote about Mr. Bourgeois in his biography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music: “He and I didn’t speak much beyond an occasional greeting, but I noticed that he was bringing classical music critics … to the club. Without being asked, he was boosting Storyville’s publicity efforts … One mid-September evening, Mr. Bourgeois approached me in the club. ‘I don’t know who you think I am,” he said in a clipped, direct manner that threw me off guard. ‘but, I’m not a rich kid. I could use a job, just like anybody else.’” That conversation turned into a job, with a starting salary of $15 per week, and a life-long friendship.

A few years later, in 1954, socialites Louis and Elaine Lorillard came into Storyville and asked Mr. Wein to create an event to bring some excitement to the summer season in Newport, Rhode Island. The event became the Newport Jazz Festival, which celebrates its 60th anniversary in August. Mr. Wein produced the festival, but it was Charlie Bourgeois who put it on the map. With a great love for and knowledge of the music and the musicians, Mr. Bourgeois was able to easily persuade journalists from Newport, Boston and Providence to come to the festival, but it was a testament to his savvy style and professionalism that brought writers from the New York Times, New Yorker and other mainstream press from around the world to the small seaside town. It was very obvious that when Charlie Bourgeois pitched a story, journalists listened and knew they were in for a great musical treat.

Mr. Bourgeois went on to publicize the Newport Folk Festival, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Grande Parade du Jazz in France, Kool Jazz Festivals, JVC Jazz Festivals and hundreds of other events around the world.

Mr. Bourgeois had great impact on the lives of everyone he touched. It was Mr. Bourgeois who suggested that Barney Josephson, owner of The Cookery in Greenwich Village, hire the singer Alberta Hunter for a limited engagement. That two-week run in 1978 turned into a six-year highlight of New York’s nightlife.

In addition to helping to re-ignite Hunter’s career, throughout his six decades in the music business, Mr. Bourgeois managed Thelonious Monk; traveled as tour manager for Erroll Garner; was road manager for the Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams; and produced albums for Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond (Jazz at Storyville), Ellis Larkins (Perfume and Rain) and Billy Taylor (Jazz at Storyville, Volume 2), among others.

Mr. Bourgeois was an “arbiter of good taste in music, cuisine, fashion and, most of all, in people,” according to Mr. Wein, and he built strong friendships and maintained them for life. He loved good food and fine wine, and he was a favorite patron of restaurants around New York City. In fact, in almost every city he visited, he could recommend a handful of must-try restaurants. In New York, there were ESCA, Gramercy Tavern and West Bank Cafe. In New Orleans, he loved Le Foret, August and Herbsaint. In Newport, he favored 22 Bowen’s, Fluke and the Safari Room at OceanCliff Hotel as well as Al Forno in Providence. He visited the Farmer’s Market in New York’s Union Square weekly and loved to stroll through Eataly and Chelsea Markets. Food and wine tastings were invented for Charlie Bourgeois and he loved to share his passion with friends. Dinners with him were marked with “Just taste this … try a little of this on it …” and it was not unusual for his guests to gladly sit back and let him order for the table.

Then, there was fashion. Mr. Bourgeois’ closets were filled with everything from seersucker suits to beautiful tweed and herringbone jackets. He was not afraid of color and he sported vibrant plaids and stripes with his crisp khakis and his trademark brown and white wingtip shoes. Since his days in Boston, he was a regular customer of The Andover Shop, with stores in Cambridge and Andover, Massachusetts, owned by his long-time friend Charlie Davidson.

“Charlie was possessed with incredible taste,” said Mr. Davidson. “I met him in Boston in 1953 and enjoyed a wonderful friendship with him, often spending holidays and vacations in my summer home in Newport. He loved to dress well and had a very special knack for mixing fabrics and colors. His friends loved his style and he brought musicians such as Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Miles Davis, Roy Haynes and others to my store. He lived his life like his clothing – full of color with many textures, yet classic, distinctive and memorable.”

When Mr. Bourgeois entered a room, you definitely knew he was there, for his sartorial style as much as his wit. Well-read and well-traveled, he perused several national newspapers and magazines from cover to cover every day, and he could hold a conversation on just about any subject. Before his publications hit the recycling bin, they were always missing dozens of articles, which had been neatly clipped to send to friends around the world. He was as comfortable reading in his condo in The Armory on West 42nd Street in Manhattan as he was exploring the mountains of China or the sands of Morocco. A master of language, Mr. Bourgeois had a particular affinity for Spoonerisms – a deliberate play on words in which corresponding consonants or vowels are switched between two words in a phrase. He delighted his friends with his tangled words and phrases, such as get’s lo instead of let’s go, shake a tower instead of take a shower or Bingle Jells for Jingle Bells. His favorite greeting was Yo! and his speech was peppered with expressions such as “Can you dig it?,” which sounded so cool coming from him that it was easy to forget that the phrase was outdated long ago.

“Charlie Bourgeois was a friend in jazz and life for over 65 years. He was family,” said Wein. “He was a confidant, an adviser and most severe, but constructive critic. He was a help and an aid in the most dire of times. We were always there for each other. He was loved by so many, but more than that, he knew how to accept love, with graciousness and humility. He was looking forward to celebrating his 95th year with his friends in New Orleans and he was as excited as I about the 60th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival. We will salute him in some of his favorite places and we know he will be with us in spirit.”

Mr. Bourgeois touched many with his friendship; his teaching and influence changed lives. He is survived by two sisters, Marguerite Martin of Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, and Germaine Oliver of New Smyrna Beach, Florida; several nieces and nephews; and his large festival family in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, Louisiana and California.
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