Thursday, September 20, 2007
The Monterey Jazz Festival is the first jazz festival in the world to live to be 50 – and we are all invited to the party. It’s a time to pause and admire the awe-inspiring institution that is the MJF, and to raise a glass to the wealth of culture it gives and gives to this community, and to the jazz world at large.
MJF has become far-reaching – this year includes a new record launch and a new band that will begin touring in January. It has also become year-round, with the Next Generation high school jazz competition held every April and events at places like Steinbeck Center and the Monterey Museum of Art taking place at various times throughout the year.
This year’s main event boasts nine stages and a slick new venue, the Lyons Lounge, plus more music, conversation, art, food and ideas than ever. Read on for Andrew Gilbert’s report on the legacy of MJF since its inception in 1958 and a tour of festival highlights, plus Maureen Davidson’s improvised piece about an exhibit of Henri Matisse’s Jazz prints.
So, happy birthday, MJF. Happy birthday, to you.
The Monterey Jazz Festival is a mood, a shout, a community, a calling, an emotional ride, and a colossus of culture. As MJF completes five decades as the nation’s signature jazz showcase, the institution is nowhere near a midlife crisis. MJF is not only looking fit and trim, it is ready to take on the world.
The festival runs Sept. 21-23 at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, where the first event was staged back in 1958. It has survived and thrived because the event has always offered something more than music, with a wide-open Northern California vibe that emanates from the luxuriant landscape. The park-like fairgrounds invite musicians and fans to linger outside in the afternoon, with lawns and craggy California oaks that beg for a picnic. With five venues offering performances simultaneously for most of the weekend, Monterey presents more music than even the most restless fan can handle.
In celebrating its 50th year, Monterey is drawing on its rich history. Most ambitiously, the festival is getting into the record business with the release of six CDs featuring historic performances, including Louis Armstrong from his headlining set at the first festival. There’s the 1963 West Coast debut of Miles Davis’s band with a 17-year-old Tony Williams, and sets by Thelonious Monk in 1964, and Dizzy Gillespie in 1965. And the divine Sarah Vaughan is captured in full flight in 1983.
The record label isn’t just about revealing Monterey’s storied history. The aim is also to document several new projects that are launching this year, including the all-star quartet assembled especially for Monterey, featuring Cuban piano virtuoso Gonzalo Rubalcaba, powerhouse saxophonist Chris Potter, bass legend Dave Holland and drum master Eric Harland. The festival is also producing recordings by the Next Generation Band and the Monterey County All-Star Band, with proceeds from the CD sales going to support educational programs.
The party won’t end on Sept. 23. For the first time, the festival is assembling a band that will carry the Monterey banner across North America on a 10-week, 55-date tour running from January through March. Led by pianist Benny Green, the 50th Anniversary Band features saxophone great James Moody, trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard, vocalist Nnenna Freelon, bassist Derrick Hodge, and drummer Kendrick Scott. All the players have deep ties to Monterey, from Green’s teenage appearances at the festival with the Berkeley High Jazz Band to Moody’s recurrent performances with Dizzy Gillespie. The band’s performance will be recorded, and if all goes as planned, an album will be available on the tour.
“That’s been the goal, to find some projects that would live on beyond the festivals themselves,” says Tim Jackson, the festival’s general manager since 1992. “The record label will make sure the music lives on. The tour will go out to the rest of the country, so the message from our 50th anniversary only starts at the fairgrounds. Who knows where it will stop?”
MAKING OF A LEGACY
It’s difficult to overstate the institution’s impact on jazz’s development over the past half century, and not just as a launching pad for rising stars such as Charles Lloyd, John Handy and Ernestine Anderson (one of a handful of artists featured at the first festival in 1958 who will perform this weekend). The oldest continuously running jazz festival in the world, Monterey retains a special status despite widespread imitation across the United States and Europe. The festival introduced a new way to experience America’s quintessential art form at a time when jazz was still considered part of a shady and somewhat dubious subculture by the cultural establishment.
Consider the era in which the festival was born. Dwight Eisenhower was well into his second term as president, Hawaii was still a territory, and the Giants had just relocated to the Bay Area when >>San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ralph Gleason and disc jockey Jimmy Lyons organized the first festival. Like Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic and George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival (which started four years earlier but hasn’t run continuously), Monterey’s goal was to take the music out of smoky joints and clattering nightclubs to present jazz as a creative endeavor worthy of close attention.
Lyons and Gleason sought to showcase jazz’s most significant artists, and the first year featured a glittering firmament of stars including Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Shelly Manne and His Men, Jimmy Giuffre, Harry James, and Billie Holiday. What’s striking is how visionary those early years were. Lyons’s recruitment of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s brilliant pianist John Lewis as musical director was the first time a musician held a real position of power in such a high profile event.
Lewis made sure the festival included both mainstream luminaries and brash innovators such as Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, and Gunther Schuller, and with Lewis, they pioneered the jazz/classical synthesis known as the Third Stream Movement. The festival commissioned musicians to compose original pieces, and poured money into jazz education in an ongoing project so successful that there are literally dozens of top-flight musicians who got their first significant exposure performing at Monterey with their high school bands (Joshua Redman, Benny Green, Patrice Rushen, and John Patitucci come to mind).
Before rock ’n’ roll swept other musical styles out of the marketplace in the mid-1960s, Monterey played a powerful role in promoting the careers of many musicians. Charles Mingus was already a jazz legend when he presented his emotionally galvanizing “Meditations on Integration” in 1964, a piece that thrust him back into the spotlight (and was captured on the album >>Mingus at Monterey). The following year, the great alto saxophonist John Handy premiered his stellar quintet with violinist Michael White and guitarist Jerry Hahn, a performance that turned Handy into a bona fide jazz star and was followed by a hit album Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Fortunately, after taking stock of its prodigious history, Monterey Jazz Festival appears energized to find new ways to fulfill its mission.