By Ann Reily
---- — A Newburyport couple are planning to celebrate their milestone anniversary in a really big way.
Betsy and Jonathan Woodman, who will mark 50 years of marriage this fall, have organized a free jazz concert this Saturday at the First Religious Society.
“It’s a gift to the community,” Betsy Woodman said. “We have really deep roots here.”
“It’s our opportunity to give back to the people who have given us a lot,” Jonathan Woodman said.
The Woodmans, who are both 71, also want to shine the spotlight on local musicians, including drummer Les Harris Sr. and baritone saxophonist Danny Harrington, whom they describe as “institutions in this community.”
Harris is a retired Berklee College of Music professor who lives in Newburyport and still teaches at West Newbury School of Music. He has performed with a number of jazz greats, including Gene Krupa, Bobby Hackett, Zoot Sims and Dinah Washington.
Harrington is a Newburyport resident who has been teaching at Berklee for 35 years. He is the former president of the Firehouse Center for the Arts, which he helped develop 22 years ago.
“We have the best of the best playing Saturday night,” Betsy said. “It’s not just a concert. It’s a concert that’s going to be memory-making.”
The concert isn’t the Woodmans’ only gift to the community. They have made a sizable donation to the Newburyport Education Foundation in honor of Harris Sr., who will be presented with a plaque on Saturday night. The money will be earmarked for enhancements to the music program at Newburyport High School.
During Saturday’s concert, Harris will be joined by both his son, Les Harris Jr., who is also a drummer and Berklee graduate, and Les Jr.’s daughter, Aubrey Harris, a 16-year-old bass player who performed with Keith Urban at last year’s American Country Awards and will attend Berklee on a full scholarship next fall.
“It’s rare to have all three Harrises play,” said Betsy, who writes children’s songs and has been studying with Harris Sr. for the past three years.
The concert will also feature Aubrey’s bass teacher, Mark Carlsen, along with pianists Jack Senier and Chris Plante and vocalists Allyn Warner Gamble and Stephen Faria.
Plante, who was the keyboardist for popular Amesbury band The Brew, has been studying with Harris Sr. since the eighth grade, but this will be the first time the two have performed together, Betsy said.
This isn’t the first time that the Woodmans have invited the entire city to celebrate with them at the Unitarian church.
When the couple were celebrating their 40th birthdays in 1981, they organized a concert with the Portland String Quartet from Maine. More than 750 people attended.
“People still remember that concert,” Betsy said.
They chose the quartet because its violist, Julia Adams, is the wife of their close friend Eliot Stanley, who was the best man at their wedding 50 years ago and will attend Saturday’s concert.
With friends and family coming from all over the United States this weekend, this celebration will be a much larger affair than the small marriage ceremony they had in Oklahoma City on Oct. 3, 1963.
The Woodmans, who met their freshman year at the University of Cincinnati, had just moved to Oklahoma for Jonathan’s new job when they decided to elope at the First Unitarian Church. The church is where they met Stanley, at a youth group meeting discussing urban renewal, a topic that interested the pair.
The church community welcomed the Woodmans with open arms, and they knew that church would be the perfect place for their wedding.
“They took care of us,” Betsy said. “It was a storybook wedding because of these people we met.”
The couple also have fond memories of Pastor Frank Holmes, who reminded them of “a Supreme Court justice” in the robes he wore to perform the ceremony.
“We knew that if we were married by that minister that it would stick,” Betsy said.
Life eventually brought the couple to Newburyport, where Jonathan was born, and he opened his architecture firm, Woodman Associate Architects, on Inn Street in 1972. In addition to being a big part of the city’s urban renewal back then, his work includes the expansions of both the Institution for Savings and the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank. He is now a member of the Downtown Newburyport Enhancement Team, a committee currently working to improve Inn Street.
Betsy is an architectural historian who has studied much of the city and wrote a number of articles for Salem’s Essex Institute that were turned into books. She also taught at the University of Lowell and Bradford College.
The couple have one daughter, Kate, and two grandchildren, 8-year-old Lily and 3-year-old Emme, who live in Charlestown and visit their grandparents every Friday. They will all be at Saturday’s concert.
If you go
What: Concert to celebrate Betsy and Jonathan Woodman’s 50th anniversary
Who: The Danny Harrington Band with special guests, including Les Harris Sr., Les Harris Jr. and Aubrey Harris
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: First Religious Society, 26 Pleasant St., Newburyport
How much: Free
More information: An award ceremony during the concert will honor Les Harris Sr. A reception with light refreshments will follow the performances.