by Michael Katz
The 60th Anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival takes place September 15-17, featuring 100th birthday salutes to Ella, Dizzy and Thelonius – and yes, if referring to those giants by their first names infers a name-dropping familiarity, that is what a personal 20 year history attending the MJF fosters. It’s a vibe, a musical community, a state of mind I’ve not found anywhere else.
One late summer’s day in 1995, it occurred to me that I ought to drive up from LA and catch this legendary jazz festival. I had little idea what I was getting into, other than knowing a few of my favorites were on the schedule: Gene Harris, Chick Corea, Toots Thielemans, Stephane Grappelli. So I pulled out a tattered California Bed and Breakfast Guide, made a few phone calls and got a room at the Del Monte Inn B and B. I drove up, found myself with a sagging bed in a room that overlooked a curve on Del Monte Avenue where the traffic was roaring by all night long, but was only a ten minute walk from the Monterey Fairgrounds. A few hours after checking in I was wandering between the two main gates, bargaining with scalpers, establishing a personal ticket strategy that involved catching patrons before they got out of the parking lot or walking from nearby hotels, learning the seating plan of the arena, rewarding myself with primo arena seats.
A couple of things enthralled me from the start. There were terrific musicians whom I had never heard of: Steve Turre, doubling on trombone and seashells, Bay Area artists Madeline Eastman and Mel Martin. Mostly, though, it was the warmth and attentiveness of the crowd. From my fellow boarders at the B and B, to everyone I met in the venues, to the strangers I plopped down next to at the crowded picnic tables, everyone had an unswerving love for jazz. We were all there for the music, we didn’t have to drag along acquaintances, cajoling them to please, please, give jazz a listen.
The afterglow lasted for weeks.
I filed away the experience as a great couple of days, and figured maybe I would do it again some time. Some time came two years later, at MJF 40, highlighted by one of the great nights of music in my lifetime. Diana Krall made her Monterey debut and, in a way, her national breakthrough. Although I had seen her at the Jazz Bakery on a rainy Tuesday night in LA, she was virtually unknown to the Monterey crowd. From her sexy, sultry rendition of Dave Frishberg’s “Peel Me A Grape,” she had the audience spellbound. And when she sang “Ghost Of A Chance” you could hear a pin drop in the normally raucous arena. If that wasn’t enough, Gerald Wilson led his orchestra in the commissioned piece, “Suite For Monterey,” variations on a beguiling theme, featuring his son, Anthony Wilson on guitar. Closing the show was Sonny Rollins, at his road show best, wailing away into the night. All three artists would return several times over the next two decades, but seeing them on the same stage in a single evening was unforgettable.
Changes were happening at the Festival, subtle at first, under the guidance of Tim Jackson, who took over from founder Jimmy Lyons a few years before I got there. Change was inevitable. As the original audience of season ticket holders aged and veteran players like Miles and Diz, Stan Getz, the MJQ, Clark Terry and others retired or passed from the scene, it was a challenge to schedule acts that would bring new generations into the tent. Jackson excelled at bringing eclectic combinations onto the various stages, original Monterey presentations such as Dave and Iola Brubeck’s Cannery Row Suite, several Monterey All-Star combos, a vocal quartet, the Four Brothers, comprised of Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Kurt Elling and Kevin Mahogany, a Cal Tjader tribute band led by Michael Wolff, featuring Warren Wolf on vibes. Jackson tinkered with the traditional Saturday afternoon blues show, expanding it to New Orleans and “Roots” music, highlighted by the earthshaking Monterey debut of Trombone Shorty in 2010. Not every booking was embraced by jazz traditionalists (including, sometimes, yours truly). But shows by the Roots band, emerging LA star Kamasi Washington and Snarky Puppy expanded the audience, at a time when jazz in general needed a shot in the arm.
It is not hard to go on, ad infinitum, about the virtuosos I’ve seen in twenty years at MJF. Latin greats Chucho Valdes, Michel Camilo, Gonzalo Rubelcaba, Arturo Sandoval, the dearly missed Dave Valentin. Or how about folk singer Pete Seeger winning over a Saturday afternoon crowd, or Angelque Kidjo bringing the audience up to the stage dancing in the midday sun (she will be back this year on Sunday night.) The Garden Stage mini-amphitheatre became Party Central for those with grounds passes. Folks perched in oak branches or sprawled on lawn chairs, picnicking, marching around, and still paying attention to the music. And the Coffee House, the smallest venue, now renamed the Pacific Jazz Café, featured some of the best trio and small ensemble groups, including Monty Alexander, the late Mulgrew Miller and Orrin Evans. This year’s Pacific Café lineup includes Roberta Gambarini and a Stan Getz tribute featuring Joel Frahm, Billy Childs, Scott Colley and Peter Erskine, recreating Getz’s classic Captain Marvel LP.
But with all that great music, the memories always center around the wonderful people I’ve met over the years. Even as I’ve been reporting for this site, I always gravitate to the friends I made in one section of the arena during my first few years. We get up to the beautiful Monterey Bay setting a day early, from homes scattered across the West and Midwest, congregate at the Hyatt and listen to the house band, featuring Bay Area greats like guitarist Calvin Keys. And when a full day of festival music isn’t enough, we sometimes head back there and watch the performers sit in with the weekend band late into the night. There must be scores of similar groups like us, all centered around the festival, spending the 362 day “off-season” watching MJF’s Facebook page and website for news about the upcoming festival.
Like previous years, Tim Jackson has put together a commercially appealing Jimmy Lyons Arena lineup for MJF 60, with the aforementioned 100th anniversary tributes, star power like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, Artists-In-Residence John Clayton, his son Gerald and Jeff Hamilton, as well as Featured Artist Regina Carter. But the grounds venues are so loaded with talent that a daily or weekend pass will give you a chance to see some of the greatest talents in music: pianist Vijay Iyer, tenor great Joe Lovano, trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Sean Jones, sax star Tia Fuller’s group featuring trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, flutist Ali Ryerson.
And, as usual, Sunday afternoon will feature the student all-stars of the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra and various high school and college combos. NGJO alumni include Benny Green, Joshua Redman, Ambrose Akinmusire and Elena Pinderhughes. Their talent will astound you. My only hope is, they can find a place in the current market that so undervalues jazz.
But that’s a subject for another essay.
And so, from one 60-something to another, I resume my love affair with the Monterey Jazz Festival. The seamy B and B I stayed in back in ’95 is now a boutique hotel, presumably with sound proof windows. Jazz stars I grew up listening to are now the subject of centennial salutes. But the music, with all its attendant bumps along the way, survives. And on the Monterey Peninsula, at least, it thrives.
Find Michael Katz’s fiction here and his photography at www.michaelkatzphotography.com .