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Sixty festive years of the Monterey Jazz Festival, and a backward glance at an American art form

George Benson at the 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival. Photo: courtesy Cole Thompson / montereyjazzfestival.org

I admit reluctantly i prefer to hear small jazz groups — trios, quartets, sextets — in what we once called smoky nightclubs. That’s the way Stan Getz and the Modern Jazz Quartet, two of my favorites, sounded the best. Minimal amplification, if at all.

INTIMATE JAZZ NIGHTCLUBS

To be sure some small jazz clubs still exist in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere. And they should be encouraged and nurtured like an endangered species. In the small clubs (not smoky anymore) the listener arrives as a supplicant — a worshipper — enjoys communion with the artists on a tiny stage, and leaves in a state of musical grace.

GIANT OUTDOOR ARENAS

Four or five thousand jazz fans in an outdoor arena with the sound cranked up almost high enough to shatter a wineglass, not to mention your eardrums, can diminish the experience. I’ve seen tenor saxophonist Getz and the incomparable Modern Jazz Quartet in the big outdoor settings. Getz wasn’t Getz. The sound, while good for reaching the back rows, blared unnaturally. And the Modern Jazz Quartet lost what its musical canon was all about — intimacy. Both Getz and the MJQ were specks on a vast stage, so we in the audience looked at a giant screen where Getz’s enormous head (perhaps six feet from hairline to chin) puffed and dribbled spittle for all to see. And the outsized MJQ sometimes was muddy with amplification and also appeared gigantic on screen.

THE STONES, MICHELANGELO, AND DEGAS

However, these huge outdoor arenas are ideal for rock ’n’ roll. Consider the Rolling Stones. You want them in a huge space. That’s where they belong. In a small intimate club the Stones wouldn’t be the Stones. Just as you want Michelangelo’s dominating Pieta to be in Rome’s mammoth St. Peter’s Basilica, not in a small gallery in the Louvre. That’s where you want Degas’s teenage ballet dancer.

JAZZ AND VAUDEVILLE WITH MOVIES

And, I maintain, the big jazz-swing bands like Ellington, Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and Woody Herman were best in indoor settings — dancehalls and movie theaters. The motion picture palaces in the Bay Area when I was a boy frequently featured vaudeville acts along with movies. The big swing bands were on stage. The practice was known as two-a-day vaudeville. An early movie came first followed by the band. Then there was a second showing of both the movie and the band. If you arrived early, as I always did — say 10 o’clock or so — you watched the first showing of the movie from a seat in the rear of the auditorium and then raced down to sit in the first row of seats.

Blackout! In the dark came the sound of the band’s theme song — say Woody Herman’s “Blue Flame.” And suddenly the red velvet curtains parted and spotlights on the brass trumpets, trombones, and saxophones reflected a blinding golden flash. Cymbals crashed, bass drums boomed, and the show was on. It was mesmerizing.

60 YEARS OF MJF EXCELLENCE

So while smaller clubs and other venues still exist, we are in the era of the big-time jazz festivals. And there’s no turning back. The economics of presenting jazz have altered how we perceive these artists and how we hear their music. And that brings me to the Monterey Jazz Festival, which celebrated its 60th birthday last month. It’s the longest running, continuous jazz festival in the world. (The upper-crust, resort town of Newport, R. I. kicked off the jazz festival concept more than 60 years ago, but has had periods over those years when it went dark for various problems.)

MJF EVOKES A NEIGHBORHOOD PARTY

Founded by disk jockey Jimmy Lyons with considerable help from music columnist and critic Ralph J. Gleason, the Monterey Jazz Festival is the best of all these events. Its main outdoor arena seats more than 5,000 fans and yet somehow manages to evoke a neighborhood party.

And that is no offhand endorsement. There are literally hundreds of jazz festivals held annually around the world. Some are very good. But the central California town of Monterey hosts the best the third weekend in September each year.

Over these years almost every major jazz artist, from Louis Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis, has performed at this festival in the parklike Monterey County Fairgrounds.

MJF IS ARTISTICALLY SUPERB

Artistically, the Monterey Jazz Festival is superb. Artistic director Tim Jackson is a sensitive and creative guy who, since 1992, has been the programming genius behind this world-class cultural event. Jackson not only has a deep respect for jazz history and the giants of the art, whom he presents thoughtfully, but also an uncanny skill for mixing and matching jazz old-timers with more youthful and progressive artists of many musical persuasions.

The nonprofit festival supports jazz education programs for kids and is run by a board of directors that includes local business types and movie legend and jazz fan Clint Eastwood, who lives on the Monterey Peninsula.

60th ANNIVERSARY CROWD-PLEASERS

For this milestone 60th year, the lineup of artists selected by Jackson was fulsome and satisfying. There were more than 500 performers on eight stages around the 22-acre, oak-studded fairgrounds, including the main arena where the major acts perform.

Crowd-pleasers and highlights for me were:

A tribute to aging saxophone giant Sonny Rollins, which featured some of the best instrumentalists in the business — Jimmy Heath, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, and Joshua Redman. Backing up these saxophonists was an exceptional rhythm section — Scott Colley (bass), Lewis Nash (percussion), and the incomparable Gerald Clayton on piano.

There was also a tribute to the late trumpet virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie. For this the Kenny Barron Trio (with Barron on piano) was joined by trumpet artists Roy Hargrove and Sean Jones, who battled it out on a searing version of a Gillespie standard, “Manteca.”

Pianist Brad Mehldau and mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile were well received in an unusual duo presentation that ended with Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Hip-hop artist Common got the arena crowd dancing and waving arms in time to his poetics that made the point everyone — of every color — should love one another. And, Leslie Odom Jr., from the Broadway show Hamilton, provided an engaging hour so good it amazed me. The festival ended with a beautiful duo-piano set by a couple of giants — Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.

But for me, the surprise hit of the 60th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival was an obscure band from Colombia called Monsieur Periné — a large ensemble from Bogota, playing a kind of gypsy jazz with strange, compelling rhythms. Hearing this exuberant group was like stumbling out of a South American jungle into a small Colombian village, having a few beers, and dancing the night away with the prettiest girl there.

MJF IS ALMOST PERFECT

The Monterey Jazz Festival has a luster that makes it a truly festive occasion and musically an important cultural event.

To be sure I have quibbles. I don’t always agree with the programming. I’m baffled by some aspects of how crowds are handled on the fairgrounds, and I’m frequently at odds with festival management over other details. But that’s because I am proprietary about the Monterey Jazz Festival. It’s my festival. I’ve spent 60 years of my life with this event as a cultural backdrop. My kids grew up with it, and my family and I continue to attend each year. It’s something we plan for and look forward to with great excitement. The Monterey Jazz Festival is an ever-present overlay to my life, and I want it to be perfect. It almost is.

 

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