A Guide to the 54th Monterey Jazz Festival

By Michael Katz

In 1995 I decided on a whim that it might be fun to drive up the coast and see the Monterey Jazz Festival. A bunch of my favorites were performing there: Chick Corea, Gene Harris, Toots Thielemans and John Scofield. I hadn’t been to the Monterey Peninsula since a family trip in high school. I didn’t have tickets. I didn’t know where to stay. By sheer luck I found a B & B just off Del Monte Beach, about a twenty minute walk from the Monterey County Fairgrounds, where the festival takes place. After a brief encounter with some friendly scalpers, I found myself sitting in the Arena on a lovely fall evening, listening to a Friday night program from the side boxes. I was in Jazz Heaven. Everybody around me loved jazz, breathed jazz, spoke jazz. As I moved from the main arena into the smaller venues on the grounds, I noticed a phenomenon unheard of on the club scene: people listened to the music. They knew the players, or if they didn’t,  were willing to give them a chance. I heard Stephane Grappelli play hot jazz on the violin. I heard Steve Turre play cool jazz on a conch shell.

For the next several years I was an on-again off-again attendee, making my plans around family events and other interventions of life. By 2003, I noticed that an empty feeling pervaded when I missed the festival. I’d made friends in the Arena, among the regulars who sold me their extra seats. I’d made friends kibitzing around the festival. Even the scalpers remembered me. I became a regular, and next week will mark my 12th MJF. For those of you who are going for the first time, or are thinking about it, this year presents a great opportunity. The lineup is terrific, the economy has left some tickets available. So here’s one man’s guide to getting the most out of one of the world’s great music events.

MJF 54 takes place September 16-18. You could analyze the festival by days or music styles or food groups, but I’m going to approach it by venues, starting out with the Arena, also known as the Jimmy Lyons Stage. An Arena ticket gets you into all the venues at the festival, though if you only have a ticket for Saturday or Sunday night, you can’t gain admission onto the grounds until 4 pm. A Grounds ticket gets you into everywhere but the Arena, and is good all day.

 THE ARENA

The Arena, located on the west end of the fairgrounds, is the original venue for the festival. It seats 6500 and the tickets are renewable;  the audience thus includes many long term festival goers, which is great for financial continuity, but presents challenges for Artistic Director Tim Jackson, who must satisfy a loyal but aging base, while continuing to pump new blood into the lineup.

Joshua Redman

The headliners you see on the ad banners   all appear in the Arena: Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Joshua Redman, though many of them appear on the grounds as well. There are five concert blocks, three evenings and two afternoons, with themes that run throughout the festival. Friday night has an international flavor, with Japanese virtuoso Hiromi opening the session on piano and Poncho Sanchez closing with a Cubano Bop salute to Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie featuring festival favorite Terence Blanchard. In between is John Pizzerelli with his wife, Jessica Molaskey and his dad Bucky; don’t be surprised if they get in with the international spirit of things. Saturday afternoon is the blues/roots program. Last year Trombone Shorty tore up the place, and this year the New Orleans jazz/funk returns with “An Afternoon in Treme,” an all-star collection of musicians from the HBO series, with Huey Lewis and the News bravely following.

One tradition at the Arena is the commissioned piece. It’s a particular challenge for an artist to compose something for a single performance. I’ve always found it a hit or miss proposition — try and be too profound and you will lose the spontaneity that jazz requires. Some of my favorites over the years were Gerald Wilson’s 40th Anniversary “Theme For Monterey,” Carla Bley’s 2005 “Appearing Nightly At The Black Orchid” and Dave and Iola Brubeck’s “Cannery Row  Suite” in 2006.

Geri Allen and Timeline

This year Geri Allen and Timeline will present a tribute Saturday night to Sammy Davis with tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. Following them is the MJF’s  Artist-in-Residence Joshua Redman, who will appear with his band James Farm. Herbie Hancock closes out the program. ‘Nuff said.

Sunday afternoon is dedicated to the high school and college bands. It tends to be a harder sell to veteran audiences, but it’s lots of fun. The Next Generation Band, a touring all-star group, has young musicians that will make you wonder just what the heck you were doing in high school and college. Chipping in will be three of the band’s alumni, the aforementioned Redman, pianist Benny Green and saxophonist Donnie McCaslin.

The second part of the program is designed to bring younger audiences in, and traditionalists sometimes chafe at the programming. They are often delightfully surprised;   two years ago young Brit Jamie Cullen gave a thoroughly engaging performance and last year West Africa’s Angelique Kidjo lit up the audience with her world rhythms. This year features Israeli keyboardist Idan Raichel and vocalist India.Arie. Sunday night closes the festival with a re-creation of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans oeuvre featuring Terence Blanchard and Miles Evans, followed by the indomitable Sonny Rollins.

THE GARDEN STAGE

I’ve always felt that the soul of the festival can be found at the Garden Stage, a small amphitheatre with bench and bleacher seating. There’s plenty of room to recline on blankets or set up portable chairs – some folks even climb into the oaks that surround the bowl. The festival opens up there Friday with a 6:30 set.

Robert Glasper

Usually a local Monterey area artist has that spot, but this year Featured Artist pianist Robert Glasper performs with his trio. Glasper will present different combos each night on the Grounds and Friday provides a wonderful opportunity for Arena ticket holders to catch him. The Garden Stage rollicks on Saturday afternoon with the blues/roots line-up. It’s great fun all day long, highlighted by the Treme group coming over from the Arena at 5:30. Saturday night, Cameroonian bassist/singer Richard Bona and Columbian singer/guitarist Raul Midon are a must see (they also perform Friday in Dizzy’s Den). I’ve always loved the late afternoon Sunday shows at the Garden Stage. The Festival seems to catch a second wind, with creative and sometimes unusual groupings. This year guitarist Bruce Forman brings his western themed Cow Bop in at 4, followed by saxophonist Tia Fuller at 5:30. Steve Coleman, who has been turning a lot of heads with his self-described “Spontaneous” music, closes the Garden slate at 7:30.

 HELPFUL HINTS

FOR THE OUTDOOR VENUES

1. Bring a seat cushion. Both the Arena card chairs and the Garden benches are hard on the keister. There’s usually some freebies given out by sponsors or themed ones for sale, but if you are like me and tend to donate your cushion to the person who follows you, it helps to have extras.

2. Dress for excess. You may find the fairgrounds shrouded in fog upon arrival in the afternoon, but the sun can be intense when it burns through. Bring a hat, shades, sun tan lotion and light long sleeves. At night, it can get downright chilly. I usually bring light-weight polypro layers in a rucksack and a warm hat. Remember, if you have a grounds pass you may not be able to leave the fairgrounds and come back.

 DIZZY’S DEN & THE NIGHTCLUB

These two venues, located across from each other on the east end of the grounds, are spacious yet intimate compared to the arena. When Arena artists come over for their late set, it is like a second set at a club– loose and swinging. While the Arena sticks to it’s time limitations, these venues give them room to stretch out. A few years ago Dee Dee Bridgewater started late and went well into the night.

Hiromi

This year Hiromi and Joshua Redman will follow up their Arena performances with late sets at Dizzy’s Den, and the Pizzarelli family will also perform a Saturday night set there. Friday night has a Latin feel in the Night Club, kicked off by vocalist Carmen Souza. Vocalists tend to do better in the intimacy of these venues. Check out Pam Rose and her “Wild Women of Song” at the Night Club on Saturday. Earlier this year I saw adventurous drummer Antonio Sanchez with his Migration band featuring bassist Scott Colley and tenor player Donnie McCaslin put on a great show in LA. Saturday night at the Night Club, Sanchez plays under Colley’s leadership, with another MJF favorite, Chris Potter on tenor. Donnie McCaslin follows with his own group.

Sunday afternoon has the dynamite high school bands at the Night Club. I heartily recommend that you support these kids and urge you not to forget that music programs in the schools are in jeopardy everywhere. Once at the festival, you can help simply by purchasing a program, and you will hear about other ways as well.

There are some great pairings Sunday night. The traditional B-3 organ blowout is in Dizzy’s Den, starting with Will Blades and concluding with Joey DeFrancesco and  renowned vibist Bobby Hutcherson. Over at the Night Club, Benny Green leads a program of Monk tunes with Donald Harrison on the sax. The Robert Glasper Experiment concludes with Stokely Williams.

 THE COFFEE HOUSE

There may not be a better place to hear small combos than the Coffee House, located between the Arena and the Garden Stage, annexed to a photo gallery. The place is usually packed, the audiences cued in; you can hear a pin drop during the performances. Pianists are featured each night, playing multiple sets.

Helen Sung

Helen Sung, a native Houstonian who has been getting lots of attention in New York, brings her trio in Friday night, with the versatile Bill Carrothers leading a trio on Saturday night and former prodigy Eldar Djangirov, from K.C. via Kyrgyzstan, playing two solo sets Sunday night. There’s an eclectic assortment of music in the afternoon sessions, including this year’s Berklee College of Music group, a Flamenco quintet. If I have one regret at the festival’s end, it’s usually the failure to spend enough time at the Coffee House.

 COURTYARD STAGE

Known to us Chicago folk as the Backroom West, this small stage just off the main entrance features our favorite singer/pianist Judy Roberts playing seven sets over the course of the festival accompanied by Greg Fishman on sax. Judy is a delight whether singing or playing the Yamaha AvantGrand, so take your dinner to the nearby picnic tables and check her out.

 ESOTERICA

1. There’s all sorts of great food on the fairgrounds midway. I’m partial to barbecue and peach cobbler, but there’s everything from salads to Thai to kabobs. Eat ‘N Enjoy. Plenty of beer and wine, too.

2. There are also panel discussions and films shown mostly during the afternoon. Check the schedule for details.

3.  Amoeba Music has taken over the festival CD sales, so look for a dramatic improvement over the last couple of years when Best Buy had the concession.

4. If you want a tee shirt, get it Friday night, when all the sizes and colors are in stock.

5. It ain’t over til it’s over. If you’re coming out of the Arena, check out the grounds venues on your way out. Last year drummer Roy Haynes’ extended closing set provided a perfect coda to the festival.

 All the MJF information is available at: http://www.montereyjazzfestival.org/2011/home

Joshua Redman photo by Tony Gieske

3 thoughts on “A Guide to the 54th Monterey Jazz Festival

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