Monday, October 1, 2007

Observations from Monterey

The 50th Monterey Jazz Festival provided more than great music and a historic vibe, Here are some random observations:

After the week before in Telluride for a virtually all-white blues festival, Monterey served up as integrated an audience as I've seen at any music festival. Jazz is one of the few places in our culture where whites, blacks, Asians and others interact naturally. For that reason alone, let have more jazz festivals.

The festival broke records for attendance, selling out of arena and grounds tickets before the festival started--for a total attendance of 45,000 for the three days of the festival. A lively resale market took place out on Fairgrounds Ave. away from the entry gate. Supply and demand were fairly equal and it seemed like arena tickets could have been had for face value.

Terence Blanchard was everywhere as the artist in residence--with his quintet, the MJF chamber orchestra, the MJF "next generation" orchestra, and the MJF 50th anniversary all-stars. Most moving was his suite of Katrina compositions, "In Time of Need," "The Water" and "Dear Mom."

It's a conundrum. If jazz music is so wonderful, why is it not more recognized by music consumers? In separate panel discussions, Clint Eastwood and Mort Sahl gave the same answer--the decline of the culture, the dumbing down by the media, jazz not getting heard by young audiences.

Maybe it was the anniversary thing, but you came away with the distinct feeling that a generation of great jazzmen is near to dying off and the worry that there will not be players of the same stature to replace them. I pondered this more as I read some of the press clips on display by decade in Lyons Lane. An 1968 article SF Examiner article by jazz writer Philip Elwood expressed that same concern about the relevance of jazz to youth culture. Does the Chronicle even employ a jazz critic today? I doubt it.

As the festival progressed, I heard the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra and I took in some of the high school bands being showcased in the Nightclub, which gave some reassurance about young talent coming into the genre. Plus, there were plenty of younger sidemen playing alongside the aging greats in the arena.

Newport wasn't pure and neither was Monterey. To broaden the appeal, Saturday afternoon is blues day. This year, British blues rocker James Hunter, the Otis Taylor Band and Los Lobos played the arena at the Monterey Jazz Festival. That's a lineup that would have made perfect sense a week earlier at Telluride Blues. To me, it didn't really fit on the hallowed stage at Monterey.

It turns out that blues day is one of the innovations by the current festival director, Tim Jackson, who has been in charge since 1992. One insider I talked with said Jackson gets the credit for expanding the audience for the festival. Years ago, there was a battle between "the hard-bop crowd" and those that wanted a more crowd-pleasing lineup. Jackson seems to have accomplished both. You certainly can't fault the jazz bonafides of a lineup with people like Jim Hall, Kenny Barron, Kenny Burrell, Dave Holland, Ornette Coleman, Dave Brubeck and Sonny Rollins. Diana Krall was the perfect Saturday night closer--absolutely accessible but still with solid jazz chops as a pianist and singer.

In the Jazz Theater, a film by Ralph Gleason about the 10th Monterey Jazz Festival was showing. In the film, festival founder Jimmy Lyons talked about the biggest bane for the festival. "We've tried everything but anti-aircraft guns about the airplanes," he said. The approach for landing planes to Monterey Airport is directly overhead the fairgrounds. Festival veterans don't notice it anymore.

After 50 years, you would expect a festival to have developed a full program of services, and Monterey did not disappoint. Almost any festival amenity that you can think of is offered here. Everything runs smoothly, even when thrown a curve like a rain-drenched opening night. The one thing I would ding them on is the need for a better portable schedule.

Because the day and night sessions are sold separately, the program pretty much shuts down for a few hours between 6 and 8 pm. For people staying all day, that makes for a relaxed dinner hour (with lots of food choices) or for checking out the crafts and other booths in the midway. It was too relaxed for me. I would have liked live music on at least one stage at 6 pm.

Festival presenting sponsor Verizon, which has been associated with MJF for many years, was said to have invested $3 million in the event. Overall its marketing was perfectly tasteful. Other brands that sponsored some part of the festival included Bose, Jet Blue, Yamaha, Korbel, Macy's and Borders. For example, Borders sponsored the artist signing booth, as it also did last month at Newport. Bose got substantial tent real estate for a showcase of its products, so it must have really shelled out for that. CNN was broadcasting live reports from an elaborate stage set in its booth. iTunes distributed cards with a download code for a 15-song sampling of festival artists.

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