Back Story

The world’s best jazz festivals

Charles Lloyd was this year’s showcase artist at the Monterey Jazz Festival. photo: cole thompson / the monterey jazz festival

In spite of pop, punk, rap, country, R&B, metal, new wave, new world, and other new sounds rattling around in our brains, jazz — still America’s unique gift to the world — is racing ahead adventurously and showing no signs of slowing down in the musical traffic.

And two world-class jazz festivals, one in San Francisco, the other 120 miles south in Monterey, may just be the best events of their kind in the world — but for totally different reasons. They illustrate my point that jazz is hot and getting hotter.

Yes, there are naysayers who think jazz is losing ground to a splintered musical menu fueled by tech-driven choices. But consider: There are hundreds of jazz festivals around the world, many in obscure places like the Cape Verde Islands, for example. There are a dozen in Russia alone, and they are all over Europe. The Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, founded in 1973, includes concerts in magnificent Renaissance buildings. The Antibes Jazz Festival, founded in 1960, is a seaside event on the French Riviera. The Hague Jazz Festival, founded in 2006, is in a convention center. And Canada’s Montreal Jazz Festival, into its 35th year, is one of the world’s best.

Also many jazz festivals are presented in this country, including in Rhode Island, where the upper-crust, resort town Newport kicked off the jazz festival concept 60 years ago. And we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a throwback to the beginnings of the form when marching bands played dirges as they accompanied funeral corteges to the cemetery, and warmed up on the way back to town with “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

One of the few places I can come up with that doesn’t have a proper jazz festival is North Korea, which prefers musical bubblegum pap and militaristic marches.


If we add to the worldwide jazz festival list all the individual jazz concerts and performances in nightclubs, we have an enormous and dedicated audience. But I maintain that our two leaders, San Francisco and Monterey, are the tops — they’re the jazz cat’s pajamas.

Yes, New York City remains the jazz incubator, the melting pot, with all the historic struggles to keep the music fresh and meaningful. New York clubs, concert halls, arenas, dancehalls, street corner happenings — and, of course, the enormity of Jazz at Lincoln Center with its towering jazz aristocrat Wynton Marsalis at the helm, help make the New York scene vibrant.


Recently I took a look and a listen to both San Francisco’s and Monterey’s top-drawer jazz events.

In my view, the nonprofit San Francisco Jazz Festival is certainly the most musically adventurous of the two and perhaps the most adventurous anywhere. It stretches the definition of jazz almost to the breaking point and is suited perfectly to this city’s predisposition to lead in far-out concepts and to absorb everything from the highbrow to the kooky.


The San Francisco Jazz Festival, with its SFJazz Center auditorium seating 700, simply has a different pleasure equation than the Monterey Jazz Festival with its 5,850-seat outdoor arena and multiple adjacent stages where more than 2,000 are accommodated.

Monterey is truly festive, on a 20-acre, oak-studded fairground, one long weekend in September. It’s a jazz party with cold beer and barbecue. The event attracts cream-of-the-crop performers. And the festival has done an admirable job bringing in fresh talent and exposing us to the future with its high school jazz stars program.


The San Francisco Jazz Festival isn’t necessarily festive. It is a series of concerts over a two-month summer period that appeal to a buttoned-down intellectual crowd. Its parent, SFJazz, presents diverse programs year-round, all linked by the vision of Executive Artistic Director Randall Kline.


The San Francisco Jazz Festival, founded by Kline in 1983, began as a small-scale series of performances in various city venues. By 1999, the well-regarded event received sizable grant money and adopted the corporate name SFJazz. Success led to more success and the energetic Kline soon began talking about building a structure to centralize performances. Vision accomplished. In 2012, Bill Cosby opened the $65 million SFJazz Center — the first freestanding building in the country devoted to jazz. It’s located at Franklin and Fell streets only a few blocks away from San Francisco’s traditional bastions of the performing arts: the symphony, ballet, and opera; and sends a strong message about this region’s cultural values.


Kline books an eclectic mix of artists. Along with such recent well–known crowd-pleasing headliners — Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Hiromi, Brad Mehldau, Dianne Reeves, Esperanza Spalding, and Doc Severinsen — he has gone out on a fertile limb with highly unusual programming. His imagination is evident in these examples:

In 2011, Kline presented Kayhal Kalhor, the Kurdish artist, on the kamancheh, an ancient Persian stringed instrument. Kahlor played stark and haunting Middle Eastern folk music.

Last year Kline presented two Portuguese fado artists, Mariza, the music’s greatest star, full-throated, gutsy and visceral, and Ana Moura, who invigorated the art of fado with contemporary pop leanings. Although fado is sometimes referred to as Portuguese blues, the dotted line to jazz is tenuous.

Also last year, Kline programmed a poetry festival and Poet Laureate Ishmael Reed — yes, SFJazz has a poet laureate — brought a diverse group on stage that included Beat poet Michael McClure. They, and Reed himself, read from their work against a jamming jazz background. The event was repeated this year.

And in April, guitarist Bill Frisell presented Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” Designed like an old radio play, Oscar-winning actor Tim Robbins read Thompson’s rich, outlandish prose. It was a hit. Jazz Times said it had “… the soured grandeur of faded Southern aristocracy, as if Stephen Foster had been soaked in Benzedrine and bourbon.” A couple of years ago, the Monterey Jazz Festival commissioned Frisell to write a tone poem called Big Sur. It was turgid and got only a tepid audience response. Frisell is an acquired taste and the San Francisco audience acquired it.

In May, Kline brought in Jason Moran, a pianist noted for his adventurous spirit. There’s nothing particularly far-out about that except that carpenters constructed a half pipe on the arena floor, and Moran skittered and slid around the piano while a bunch of skateboarders skittered and slid around the half pipe.

San Francisco is not presenting your grandmother’s same old jazz festival.


Now what about our neighbor to the south?

The nonprofit Monterey Jazz Festival was founded in 1958 by San Francisco disc jockey Jimmy Lyons, and for many years, it was the clear leader, running ahead of the pack with the most significant jazz artists of the time. Even a few rock groups like Janis Joplin and her Big Brother and the Holding Company and Sly and the Family Stone graced the Monterey Jazz Festival. Later it continued to sell out with established figures. Adventurous? Not necessarily. But it was solid and swinging — a foot-tapping, finger-snapping party. It should be noted that in the Jimmy Lyons years the festival commissioned several works that still resonate — Dave and Iola Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors with Louis Armstrong and Evolution of the Blues Song with Jon Hendricks.


Tim Jackson succeeded Lyons in 1992. He has honored fast-disappearing jazz masters and introduced some new ones. But if Artistic Director Jackson — who is a brilliant programmer by the way — were to book some of the artists Randall Kline books, his board of directors would think he lost his marbles. The Monterey Jazz Festival board has its eyes glued on the bottom line. Its focus is jazz education for kids — certainly a worthy endeavor — but let’s not lose sight of what a music festival is all about. It’s all about the music presented on the spot. That doesn’t make Jackson’s board members bad guys and gals, just munificent guys and gals who want to fund kids programs. But munificence doesn’t necessarily equate with unprecedented far-out programming.

Randall Kline’s board is bold and O.K. with taking chances and it rubber-stamps a lot of them.

When asked about the highly unusual diversity of his programming, Kline told me, “I want to dot the lines from one music to another. Although for example, it’s quite easy to see the connection between African drumming and jazz, some connections between musical forms are not made so easily. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.” Hence, Kline’s dotted lines from fado to jazz or from Kurdish folk music to jazz. “I try to establish an aesthetic that accommodates many musical tastes,” he said.


The Monterey Jazz Festival just completed its 57th annual event. It must be doing something right. It’s the oldest continuous jazz festival in the world and deserves its accolades. Approximately 40,000 fans attended and had a hell of a good time.

When I talked to Tim Jackson about his festival he said, “We’ve got an unbeatable combination here — a marvelous venue and an amazing cross-section of what’s current in jazz, coupled with a 57-year legacy of historic performances.” He’s right.

This year’s Monterey Jazz Festival featured a highly listenable group of performers, including Herbie Hancock, Charles Lloyd, Michael Feinstein (in a set called “The Sinatra Project”), Christian McBride, Eric Harland, Brian Blade, Delfeayo Marsalis (with Ellis Marsalis Jr., the father of the famous Marsalis brothers), and The Roots (from TV’s Tonight Show).

So jazz is hot and San Francisco and Monterey prove it. But don’t take my word for it, judge for yourself. Attend both.

Send to a Friend Print