Although he never played a note in public and shunned the limelight, Art Fine, a founder of the Hartford Jazz Society, was for many decades one of the most influential, behind-the-scenes shakers-and-doers on the Hartford jazz scene.
A vital, invaluable presence in the music until slowed down by failing health in recent years, Fine died Saturday at his home in Bloomfield, surrounded by loved ones. He was 96.
Fine was a prime mover in founding the HJS in 1960, and for years he handled its booking, tapping into his business acumen, his knowledge of and passion for the music, and his wide-sweeping connections with numerous famous musicians.
Fine and a small cell of fellow jazz revolutionaries began dreaming up the idea of some day creating a nonprofit jazz society while jazz in downtown Hartford was facing one of its darkest hours with the impending death of the Heublein Hotel.
The elegant Heublein, thanks to its legendary booking agent Paul Landerman, was bringing to town a constant flow of top-tier jazz figures — luminaries ranging from Teddy Wilson to Dizzy Gillespie.
Fine and his hard-core jazz comrades, including George Malcolm-Smith, a comic novelist of note from West Hartford, regularly congregated in the cozy, dimly lit Heublein lounge, never really quite believing they were savoring the pleasures of a Manhattan jazz club in downtown Hartford.
All that 1950s jazz bliss ended, however, when the Heublein — one of the city's most celebrated jazz spas — was targeted for the wrecker's ball as part of what was then hyped as the great promise of urban renewal.
Fine, who was a successful businessman (he founded and operated his own refrigeration and air-conditioning firm, Hartford Heating Co.), came to the rescue of jazz lovers by opening his hillside home in Bloomfield. Fine's elegant home became a popular gathering place, a 20th-century salon for jazz sophisticates.
"We had no place to hang out," Fine once explained to The Courant, "so I invited everybody to come out to my place."
Festive gatherings at Fine's home — a convivial mix of camaraderie and live music often featuring world-famous musicians — became the talk of the town. Musicians loved to play there. Many were good friends with Fine. Some may even have played at his jazz-inflected birthday parties, or met him while playing in one of New York's top jazz clubs where he would check out the scene.
Jazz-loving friends were delighted by this rare opportunity to hear music in such an intimateatmosphere, with maybe even the opportunity to chat with some jazz immortal over a cocktail. Once the HJS was launched, Fine would hold pre-concert get-togethers with the featured musicians and friends as his guests, plus post-concert jam sessions that swung into the early-morning hours.
Walk into Fine's crowded, spacious living room and you were liable to hear some great pianist rocking away on the living room's big, beautiful, piano. It could be anybody from Randy Weston, one of Fine's many close jazz buddies, to Gene Rodgers, who played piano on Coleman Hawkins' 1939 "Body and Soul," one of the most venerated of all jazz recordings.
Booker Ervin, a young, swaggering, gunslinger of a saxophonist from the Charles Mingus band, might be tearing the place apart with a robust tenor solo. Or you could relax, with a drink in hand, just a couple feet away from the great trumpeter Clark Terry as he wailed away on a blues for Bloomfield or launched into one of his surreal, mumbling vocals.
Or you might hear the glorious Roy Eldridge, another master trumpeter, musing on a sweet ballad, creating more precious moments that Fine preserved on his home tape recorder.
"Oh, God it was wild," says Lucy Marsters, a former HJS president and longtime friend.
"Art's parties were the greatest. His home was open. I went into Art's kitchen one night, and the next thing I knew I was having a drink with Kenny Burrell," the jazz guitarist.
Gene Solon, another former HJS president and friend, describes Fine's jazz soirees as "an explosion of happiness."
Along with all the good times that rolled and good music that rocked at Fine's place, the idea of creating a jazz society also germinated under his roof.
"In fact," Fine once told The Courant, "the jazz society was formed in September 1960 by a group of us right on the lawn at my home."
Always working quietly behind the scenes, Fine, who handled the HJS concert bookings for many years, was a pivotal player in bringing extraordinary talent to Hartford, ranging from Elvin Jones to Bill Evans.
"Art was the glue that held everything together," Marsters says. "He was the guru, always right on top of everything, yet always genial. Everybody looked to him and liked him. And he was always right there right up until the time he got ill and had to withdraw." For Solon, Fine helped make the city more than just an obscure, cultural pit stop between Boston and New York:
"It's hard to even measure Art's importance because he brought ... a profusion of great music and great artists to town that put the jazz society on the forefront of the art of jazz in the Greater Hartford area."
Promoting jazz became a lifetime avocation, a fine art for Art Fine, but he never made a nickel from the music.
In fact, Harry Lichtenbaum, a former president and charter member, recalls a dramatic instance when the HJS, in its infancy, might well have suffered an early death but for Fine's generous financial intervention.
Early in the '60s, the HJS, feeling like it was ready to step into the big time, took a giant fiscal gamble by presenting vocalist Joe Williams in concert at the Bushnell, especially risky at a time when jazz was being financially obliterated by rock 'n' roll.
Nonetheless, HJS went full speed ahead, hoping for a turnout of 3,000. It got 300.
Bombing at the Bushnell was a Titanic financial disaster.
"We would have gone into debt, but Art put up the money we needed out of his own pocket," Lichtenbaum recalls.
"Over the years he got repaid. But, without Art's financing, that would have been the demise of the jazz society." Part of what fascinates Solon about Fine is his personal character, including the easygoing, amiable sense of gravitas and efficiency he projected in an unaffected way.
"Art was a real gentleman," Solon explains, "a stellar figure, but very self-effacing, a well-liked, much-respected guy who never ever tried to push himself out front."
Over the years, Fine was invariably an upbeat presence at HJS concerts, whether the society was experiencing the best of times or the worst of times. Most particularly, he seemed proud of its annual riverboat cruise on the Connecticut River.
Decked out in his signature captain's cap and cruise apparel, Fine, even well into old age, loved to stroll on the riverboat from top deck to bottom, chatting with friends in the festive crowd, taking in all the sights and sounds, always embracing life to the fullest.
Besides enjoying the music by the shipboard bands he had booked, the splendors of the river valley view and the stem to stern picnic atmosphere, Fine also appreciated a more deeply significant, extra-musical element about the annual cruise, particularly in its early days.
As the civil-rights movement was gaining momentum nationally, the jazz society quickly became known as a democratic group, literally an open society in which one's color was irrelevant.
"There really wasn't any other place in Hartford back in the early '60s where whites and blacks were not just integrated but also socialized," Fine said in an interview with The Courant in 1980 as the HJS was celebrating its 20th anniversary.
"It was the music that brought everybody together. That was the real catalyst. And just that sort of thing is really what I consider to be the most significant thing that the society accomplished in 20 years — that element of bringing people together, that sort of brotherhood that jazz really stands for," Fine said.
A memorial service for Fine will be held Jan. 26 at 2 p.m. at the Carmon Windsor Funeral Home, 807 Bloomfield Ave., Windsor.
Owen McNally, a former Courant writer, continues to cover jazz in his weekly "Riffs" column in Thursday's Cal section.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at