Sunday, September 16, 2007

Monterey at 50: Legendary Jazz Festival Celebrates Its Legacy

This month, the 86-year-old Brubeck will be making his 14th appearance at the festival he helped launch when he performs at the 50th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, which is expected to draw more than 40,000 people from Sept. 21-23. “I have many reasons for returning to Monterey - the excitement, the camaraderie, remembrances of my youth, my connection with its history and the challenge to try to bring something new each time I appear,” said Brubeck.

Brubeck went to Monterey in 1957 as a favour to disc jockey Jimmy Lyons, who discovered the jazz pianist at a 1949 San Francisco concert and arranged a successful audition for a weekly NBC radio show.

In the early 1950s, Lyons and San Francisco Chronicle jazz writer Ralph J. Gleason had discussed the notion of holding an outdoor festival by the sea in “a sylvan setting with lots of trees and grass . . . away from the sultry, dark, webby setting of clubs.”

Inspired by the success of the first U.S. jazz festival held in Newport, R.I., in 1954, Lyons and Gleason decided that the eight-hectare Monterey County Fairgrounds would make an ideal locale for a West Coast festival.

They enlisted the support of local business owners looking to boost tourism to replace the disappearing sardine industry, but still needed to convince a skeptical city council. Brubeck, who grew up on a cattle ranch about 160 kilometres inland, offered to help because he shared Lyons' interest in building more respect for jazz and a wider audience.

“Jimmy asked my quartet to come and play in a little exhibition room at the fairgrounds that was a place where farmers showed their produce,” Brubeck told The Associated Press. “It was a room with a cement floor and whitewashed ceiling and walls.

“It was not a very congenial ambience, but our performance accomplished what Jimmy wanted - their approval to use the fairgrounds for a jazz festival. After we played we talked with some of the officials . . . and I guess they determined that we weren't a danger to society.”

On Oct. 3, 1958, the inaugural Monterey Jazz Festival began with the irrepressible trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie serving as master of ceremonies and blowing the “The Star-Spangled Banner” before about 6,500 fans in the horse show arena.

The evening ended with one of those magical moments that became part of Monterey folklore when the bebop pioneer Gillespie got down on his knees, rose and kissed the hand of Louis Armstrong, acknowledging his debt to the traditional jazz master.

That first-night performance by Armstrong and his All-Stars can now be heard on a CD from Monterey Jazz Festival Records, a label started this summer to commemorate the 50th anniversary.

The festival also marked the anniversary by publishing “The Art of Jazz,” a retrospective of its distinctive poster art. Festival board member Clint Eastwood, who attended the 1958 festival and featured shots from the 1970 event in his directorial debut “Play Misty For Me,” is producing a documentary on the festival's legacy to be released next year.

This year, festival general manager Tim Jackson has invited back the surviving jazz legends who appeared at the 1958 festival: Brubeck, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, guitarist Jim Hall and singer Ernestine Anderson. The festival will also be introducing its first-ever dance venue, which will offer a mix of jazz, hip-hop and dance tracks.

“I think it's important to celebrate and honour our history and legacy, but you need to keep . . . moving forward and feeling like you're creating something that's new and vital every year,” said the 53-year-old Jackson, in a telephone interview from the festival's Monterey office. “I think that's ultimately what keeps people coming back.”

Over the years, Monterey has set high musical standards while still managing to create a spontaneous festive atmosphere.

Brubeck himself set the tone that first year with his reaction when a low-flying airplane briefly drowned out his famous quartet featuring alto saxophonist Paul Desmond.

“So I incorporated into my improvisation 'Off we go into the wild blue yonder,' which made the audience laugh,” said Brubeck. “It's those spontaneous moments that audiences remember.”

From the start, Monterey drew a racially integrated and diverse audience that mixed everyone from socialites to hipsters.

“It was very Californian, very laid back . . . a mellow scene,” said Darlene Chan, who attended her first festival in 1961 as a high school student and would go on to serve as Lyons' right-hand person and production co-ordinator until leaving in 1987.

“Plus it's such a beautiful setting . . . you're among trees . . . and can look out and you're by the Pacific Ocean,” said Chan, now a senior vice-president for Festival Productions, who produces Los Angeles' Playboy Jazz Festival and other events.

Gerald Wilson, who has led a Los Angeles-based jazz big band since 1944, has been at the festival almost every year as a performer or fan since 1963, enjoying the camaraderie of hanging out with musician friends at the backstage Hunt Club or mingling with the crowds going from venue to venue on the grounds.

“It truly is a magical feeling,” said Wilson. “I've been to many festivals the world over but I've never been to one like Monterey.”

The 89-year-old Wilson, who composed pieces to celebrate the 20th and 40th anniversaries, will be back with his orchestra to premiere his commissioned 50th anniversary suite, “Monterey Moods,” reflecting different jazz styles heard at the festival - uptempo swing, jazz waltz, ballad, Latin, blues and hard bop. A studio recording will be released on CD after the festival.

From the start, Lyons, who became the general manager, and Gleason, who preferred a low-profile role as a programming consultant, made Monterey distinctive from other festivals. The festival incorporated as a nonprofit organization to support jazz education (which now receives $700,000 of the $3.8 million annual budget). Pianist John Lewis, leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet, was brought on as musical director, giving musicians more say in creating innovative programs that couldn't be heard elsewhere.

In 1960, the festival board adopted a statement of principles pledging to “avoid the hackneyed and the trite” while exploring “the new frontiers of jazz,” match musicians who didn't ordinarily perform together and commission original large-scale jazz compositions.

The then-novel commissions led to such premieres as Duke Ellington's Steinbeck-inspired “Suite Thursday,” vocalist Jon Hendricks' “Evolution of the Blues Song,” and bassist Charles Mingus' “Meditations on Integration.”

But, probably, the most fondly remembered commissioned work was Brubeck's 1962 musical “The Real Ambassadors” starring Armstrong and Carmen McRae, with a libretto by the pianist's wife Iola. It pointed to the U.S. government's hypocrisy in sending jazz musicians overseas as cultural ambassadors while black Americans were fighting at home for equal rights.

At the dress rehearsal, Armstrong balked when Brubeck asked him to wear a top hat and carry an attache case for the ambassador's role.

“That night at the performance when it came time for Louis' entry he had on a top hat and was carrying an attache case,” Brubeck remembered. “As he walked by me seated at the piano, he asked, 'Am I hamming it up enough to suit you, Pops?'

“I was deeply impressed by Louis' sincerity, his musicianship and his ability to carry off his role. . . . He had to learn a lot of new music, not all of it in his style.”

In 1964, Big Joe Turner and “Big Mama” Thornton appeared at a Saturday afternoon blues show, which to this day remains a popular festival tradition guaranteed to get fans dancing in the aisles.

But Gleason's attempts to introduce rock proved less successful. Jefferson Airplane appeared in 1966 a year before the famed Monterey Pop festival but Lyons stopped booking rock bands after 1969, when Sly Stone delayed his performance until stage hands could find his favourite stool.

As electronic jazz-rock fusion became popular, the Monterey festival experienced a mid-life crisis in the '70s and '80s. Gleason died in 1975 and Lyons' booking policy became more conservative as he repeatedly brought back the same musicians who reflected his mainstream and bebop tastes. The festival sold out every year, but many fans demanded to hear new artists.

In 1992, the MJF board replaced the ailing Lyons with Jackson, a saxophonist-flutist who had founded Kuumba Jazz, a nonprofit performance space in nearby Santa Cruz.

“I tried to reassure people that I was moving on more of an evolutionary path instead of a revolutionary one,” said Jackson. “It was more of a tinkering process . . . just kind of taking the festival back to some of its roots.”

Jackson adopted a more open-minded approach to programming. This year's lineup includes the jazz-rock guitarist John McLaughlin, singer-pianist Diana Krall, young trumpet stars Christian Scott and Sean Jones, and New Orleans street funk bands Dumpstaphunk and Bonerama.

Jackson gradually upgraded and raised the number of venues on the fairgrounds to nine, ranging from the intimate 300-seat Coffee House Gallery to the main Arena/Lyons Stage.

He also resumed the tradition of commissioning new works, starting with pianist Billy Childs in 1994. Last year, Brubeck premiered his mini-opera, “Cannery Row Suite,” based on characters from Steinbeck's novel, starring the singers Kurt Elling and Roberta Gambarini.

This year's anniversary celebrations will culminate on the final day with a Sunday lineup of jazz legends on the main stage: Ornette Coleman, Brubeck with special guest Jim Hall, and Rollins.

“I always feel a special thrill . . . about playing at Monterey . . . and I'm really intent on having an especially memorable performance that night,” said the 77-year-old Rollins. “It's just like the gods of Monterey are looking over us and admonishing us if we don't do a good job. There's a special vibe . . . the history, the tradition and being out there in this beautiful part of the world.”

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