Thursday, April 16, 1998
Music''s greatest power is its ability to bring together disparate elements. Just as it combines notes, rhythm, melody and instruments, it has the ability to bind audiences, musicians, communities, and ease the path for cultural exchanges. One need look no further than this year''s Big Sur JazzFest to witness the many ways music serves as the tie that binds.
Organized three years ago, the Big Sur JazzFest originally took place over three days at several venues in Big Sur, with a grand finale concert at Pfeiffer State Park. In addition to providing one heckuva great party to Big Sur residents, the fest was intended to help support the needs of Big Sur nonprofit agencies. This year, the Big Sur JazzFest, along with all South Coast businesses, faces its own challenge. With Big Sur all but cut off due to Highway 1''s El Ni¤o damage, the nonprofit JazzFest''s core group of volunteers made the difficult decision to take the festival on the road, so to speak, and move it to the Monterey Conference Center. Stripped down to a one-night, one-venue, four-group affair, the festival is still striving to do good things for the Big Sur community--but, less than a week before the show, organizers say box office sales are sluggish.
"We''ve gotten a lot of phone calls," says Festival President Bob Cosgrove, "asking us if we were going to have it in Big Sur. The ticket sales are weak. We''re just trying to do our thing. Jazz is about improvisation. That''s exactly what we''re doing. We''re improvising the best we can."
For an improvisation, it''s pretty impressive: Included on Sunday''s roster are the Roy Hargrove Sextet, Dave Ellis Quartet, Jack Perla Quintet and the Claudia Gomez Quartet. That''s a first-rate lineup in anybody''s book, that includes both established musicians as well as up-and-comers.
Twenty-eight-year-old jazz trumpet phenom Roy Hargrove played last year''s Big Sur JazzFest. The festival''s practice of putting band members up at Big Sur hotels and Esalen Institute helped inspire Hargrove''s group to return this year.
"I''ve known Paul Vierrege [one of the festival''s founders] a lot of years," says Larry Clouthier, Hargrove''s manager, booking agent and record producer. "We''re really supportive of what he''s doing down there. We told him we''d love to come back again. We loved being at Esalen. David Price (operations manager and arts coordinator at Esalen) really extended himself to take care of us."
Although Hargrove and his band will spend a full week at Esalen, the time he spends in the area will be considerably less than peaceful. He has gigs--including clinics at Monterey High School and CSUMB, and a sold-out concert at the Jazz Store--every day except Wednesday.
Asked what drew him back to the festival this year, Hargrove replies, "I would say first, the scenery. It''s really beautiful out there, all the redwood trees, above the cliffs, the whole area, everything. The people were really nice."
Hargrove received a Grammy for his CD Habana, recorded in 1997 in Orvieto, Italy following a 1996 trip to Cuba at the invitation of legendary pianist Chucho Valdes, founder and leader of the celebrated band Irakere. What transpired was a melding of talent, culture and a turning point in Hargrove''s career. Recognized as a player with some of the fiercest fire and passion among trumpeters, Hargrove absorbed the Afro-Cuban rhythms and blew them out with amazing ease and alacrity.
"When I went over there," he says, "I had a great musical exchange with some musicians. That''s how we made the album. As in any situation, I try to keep myself in an education vibe. So definitely, hanging out with those guys, sitting in with rehearsals, I gained insight to rhythm and styles I can play."
Although he isn''t working the area with Crisol, the band with which he recorded Habana, he says the group he''s working with locally (Gerald Cannon, bass; Willie Jones III, drums; Frank Lacy, trombone; Sherman Irby, alto sax and Larry Willis, piano) can play both straight ahead and Afro-Cuban jazz.
Berkeley-born tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis, is another incentive for attending the concert and coming to the rescue of Big Sur. He''s also an example of the weird ways that music can combine seemingly disparate elements.
Ellis has just returned from a tour with Ratdog, the band formed by the Grateful Dead''s Bob Weir after Jerry Garcia died, and he will tour this summer with The Other Ones, the Dead''s resurrected incarnation, as part of The Furthur Festival. At first glance, Ellis might seem out of place in the tie-dyed world of The Dead, but his jazz background is congruent with the improvisatory style employed by the revered rock band.
Ellis'' band for the benefit of Big Sur includes Jeff Chimenti, piano; Ben Leinbach, drums; and Peter Barshay, bass. He is also going into the studio in a few weeks to begin production on his second CD for San Francisco''s Monarch Records, with legendary jazz producer Orin Keepnews.
"I would say we''ll be playing a little more raw and a little funkier than what you would expect from Orin," he says. "I''m going to teach him some new stuff."
But music offers more than simple opportunities for musicians to learn new licks. And the Big Sur Jazz Fest offers evidence of that, too. Late Friday afternoon Hargrove will play at Esalen for Big Sur locals only, arranged by Price as a community event, a way to thank everyone who has worked so hard to keep Big Sur afloat through the stormy weather.
One such group is the Big Sur Health Center, which rallied to handle the confusion, anxiety, and emergencies presented when the road washed out.
"No one was prepared to be without their medications," says Sharen Carey, physician assistant and operations manager at the health center. "A tourist was trapped down here who had to take eight different medicines for his heart and high blood pressure. That had to be helicoptered in. We also had people who were, later on, without jobs. They didn''t have money to come to the clinic. The only option was to give free and discounted services."
The center was also a central location for parents to pick up school assignments brought down by Carey when they were unable to make the trip to town for classes, and as a holding spot for the tons of pet food brought down by the SPCA.
"We''re a nonprofit," says Carey. "There are no government subsidies. We rely on grants, community donations like the Big Sur JazzFest, the River Run and the Marathon...We always run in a shortfall. We are very small and community-based. Those people who support us this year are impacted also."
Unable to tally the monetary burden incurred until billing and insurance catches up, Carey says they may have to look to FEMA and the greater community of the Monterey Peninsula for assistance should regular avenues falter.
If promoters of the Big Sur Jazz Festival have their way, that won''t be necessary. Music will provide the bridge between people. cw