Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Monterey honors its roots in 50th anniversary festival

In the hip bebop jazz world of the 1950s, a new cool jazz culture was forming in California. Musicians like Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton led bands that embodied the new style out of San Francisco and Los Angeles, but it was somewhere in between--Monterey, Calif.--that became the place most closely identified with that school of jazz.

Opening October 3, 1958, the first Monterey Jazz Festival brought together luminaries from New York like Louis Armstrong and Billy Holiday with Brubeck and others from the West coast. Last week, the festival celebrated 50 years in the same location in a blowout festival that broke attendance records and brought back many old favorites.

Among those who had been at both the first and the fiftiest Monterey festivals were Brubeck, the epitome of West coast jazz, saxophone legend Sonny Rollins, vocalist Ernestine Anderson and comedian Mort Sahl.

For the first time ever, the festival sold out of all arena and grounds tickets before the opening night. The festival reported that 45,000 people attended the three-day event at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, in the same location since the beginning.

The weekend got off to a soggy start, when a rare September rainstorm doused the grounds. Umbrellas went up in the fairgrounds arena, while John McLaughlin and Isaac Delgado carried on. Many fans made for the two main covered venues, The Nightclub, where artists like Jim Hall, Terence Blanchard and Anthony Wilson were playing their first of several festival sets, and Dizzy's Den, where New Orleans night was underway with the great brass band Bonerama and Ivan Nevelle's group Dumpstaphunk.

The excursion to New Orleans was one of several subthemes in the program meant to expand the festival's appeal beyond pure jazz. Saturday afternoon was blues day, with British blues rocker James Hunter, the Otis Taylor Band, and Latin rockers Los Lobos taking over the arena. Sunday had a family day theme with an emphasis on young talent.

On the main stage, the theme was ensemble playing and special collaborations. Guitarist Jim Hall was the featured soloist with the Brubeck Quartet. Kenny Burrell was special guest with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. Opening the Sunday night program, the MJF All-Stars featured vocalist Nnenna Freelon.

Overshadowed in all the festival highlights was an exuberant set by another jazz legend, Ornette Coleman, playing in an unusual three bass ensemble. That left all the highs for Coleman's saxophone and violin. With the violin, it was an electric swing band, not unlike a Bela Fleck and perfectly accessible.

The two big headliners were Diana Krall on Saturday and Sonny Rollins on Sunday. This was this first time back for Krall in seven years, and one of her first performances since recently having twins. She pleased the crowd with her stylish piano and vocal chops, and with a mini three-song Nat King Cole tribute.

Sonny Rollins closed the festival on Sunday night and he did not disappoint. He's still a hip cat with his shades and beard, and he still delivered that richly lyrical tone from his saxophone that makes him instantly recognizable.

Two special compositions were showcased. The festival's commissioned work was Gerald Wilson's song suite "Monterey Moods," which he performed in the arena Saturday night with his orchestra and special guest Kenny Burrell.

The second, by 2007 MJF artist-in-residence Terence Blanchard, was a moving "Requiem for Katrina," his search for the soul of his home city, performed with his quintet and a jazz chamber orchestra. After the solemn tone of the Katrina suite, I was glad Blanchard ended with an upbeat "Congo Square," celebrating the birth of jazz in New Orleans.

The festival introduced several innovations in its layout this year. A new dance tent dubbed Lyons Lounge became the ninth program venue, with DJ Logic and Vinnie Esparza working the turntables. Another new feature named for the festival founder was Lyons Lane with informational displays about the history of the festival.

In addition to lots of great music, the festival included a focus on jazz films and on panel discussions with figures associated with the festival. Comedian Mort Sahl, who emceed in 1957, was featured as in a staged interview format. Filmmakers Clint Eastwood and John Sayles sat on a panel to discuss jazz in movies. Eastwood, who has been associated with MJF for many years, was also honored with the presentation of an honorary doctorate from Berklee School of Music.

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.

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.

50 years in America

Monterey Jazz Festival celebrated its 50th anniversary a couple of weeks early. The first festival opened on October 3, 1957 and featured Louis Armstrong, Billy Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry James and many more. Three musicians who were featured at the first festival--Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, and Ernestine Anderson--were also on hand this year for the big anniversary.

The next day, the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik, the first manmade satellite in Earth orbit. It had been the week before, September 25, when Eisenhower sent federal troops to desegregate a school in Little Rock. A week before that, the New York Times had reviewed Kerouac's On the Road and called it a great work of art. A week following the festival, Dodger owner Walter O'Malley would break hearts in Brooklyn in announcing the team's move to Los Angeles.

In some ways, 50 years is a long time. In others, just yesterday.