Monday, October 1, 2007

Comedian Mort Sahl returns to Monterey

Mort Sahl was a young comic just breaking through when he emceed part of the first Monterey Jazz Fest in 1957. Over the next years he was a fill-in host on The Tonight Show, a presidential speechwriter in the Kennedy administration, and the host of frequent comedy specials on NBC.

Living in Los Angeles, Sahl was closely associated with the West Coast jazz scene and with jazz greats like Dave Brubeck, Stan Kenton, Paul Desmond, Maynard Ferguson and others.

Sahl, now 80, was back in Monterey last week for the anniversary festival. He emceed the Sunday night program, dropping a few political one-liners but mainly introducing performers including Brubeck and Sonny Rollins. He had more to say Saturday afternoon at a staged Q&A, where he reminisced about musicians and the festival.

He said the real birthplace for the fusion of jazz and comedy was not the festival but a concert two years earlier at the Sunset Auditorium in nearby Carmel CA. When Jimmy Lyons and Ralph Gleason pulled off the first festival, Sahl flew in overnight from Chicago. He recalled that Billy Holiday was there but was "juicing" and was pretty far gone.

"Only Lester Young could talk to her. Lester was so hip, even we couldn't understand him," Sahl said. He also said that he didn't get paid for his 1957 appearance.

Sahl first hooked up with the Kenton band in San Francisco, where he would be playing at the Hungry i and Kenton was on the bandstand at the Blackhawk. Sahl said Stan Kenton was a father to him and that Paul Desmond was his best friend.

"I'm a big band guy. I like construction, with holes for solos," he said.

He had great stories to tell about many of the jazz greats. Artie Shaw advising him never to marry an actress or start a big band. Buddy Rich dropping Lana Turner on the side of the road. He talked about his contemporaries--Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, George Carlin.

He doesn't have much use for most of today's comedians. "They are vulgar because they are not clever," he said.

He also touched on the social and political issues of the day--the blacklists, racial segregation, Vietnam, Nixon. He feels that most people who run for president do not allow themselves to dream, as Kennedy did.

"Listening to jazz reminds you of a time you felt better about your future," he said.

Among other pursuits, Sahl teaches a course about critical thinking at Claremont College and believes that the way to reverse the decline in the culture is to expose young people to honest music. They need to know the difference between jazz and jive, he said.

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