MONTEREY, Calif.: Defying the odds, even in a field as precarious as jazz, the Monterey Jazz Festival has been going strong since 1958 – and almost everyone who was anyone has appeared there. There is a recording taken from that inaugural festival that features a legend near the end of the line, Billie Holiday. Her singing voice was a ravaged shell of what it once was, and she sounded drunk or strung out when speaking, yet Lady Day was still able to cast her spell with turns of phrase that bespoke heartbreak, hurt, and determination. On two occasions, the recording catches airplanes from the Monterey Airport next door zooming over the stage and drowning out the music.
Sixty years later, planes still buzz the Monterey County Fairgrounds where the festival is held, but several regular attendees say that’s part of its endearing charm. Also, amplification systems are much more prevalent and powerful now than in 1958. So it didn’t take much effort last Saturday afternoon for the dynamic gospel singer-turned-bluesman Mr. Sipp’s roaring rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” a la Jimi Hendrix to completely drown out a private jet overhead. Don’cha just love it?
This was my first Monterey Jazz Festival, and it seemed like an eight-ring circus to this Richard-come-lately. Things were popping on at least eight separate stages spread throughout the length and width of the fairgrounds, and no one person could possibly take it all in since events were piled on top of each other simultaneously. A two-aisle bazaar ran the length of the main arena, where vendors peddled clothing, hats, jewelry, art works and other tchotchkes (curiously there were no music books, CDs or records for sale). Food courts offered as many varieties of international and domestic treats as one would want.
The weather was near-perfect for the Monterey Peninsula that weekend; the lanes and lawns linking the venues were mobbed like Disneyland in the late afternoons and evenings. People could be overheard reminiscing about Miles and other departed heroes, or talking about the performances they just saw or wanted to attend. That’s rare in my experience; most of the time, festival-goers babble about anything but the music.
Like most festivals that are labeled “jazz,” Monterey takes in music that falls outside of even the increasingly porous outer boundaries of the form. But the focus remains resolutely on jazz – and the size of the crowds, their multi-ethnic/multi-age makeup, and the often-packed-to-capacity rooms and arenas makes me wonder whether the dismal statistic of jazz’s current share of the market (1%, just a tiny bit ahead of classical, which is dead last) is accurate.
Since there were so many time conflicts in the schedule, I can only tell you about some of the acts that were there, while regrettfully being unable to attend other performances that looked promising. More often than not, you have to be content with fleeting portions of one artist’s performance before rushing to the other side of the fairgrounds to catch a few minutes of another’s set. Sometimes, the set is so hot that it makes you stay for more, throwing you off your intended schedule. A pleasant dilemma it is, though, and you get plenty of exercise in the deal.
The first revelation happened Saturday afternoon on the main historic Jimmy Lyons Stage where Dee Dee Bridgewater revealed an unexpected talent for gritty Memphis soul, reaching deep down to her hitherto-hidden roots. She made Al Green’s “Tired Of Being Alone” a bluesy grooving thing, did Roebuck Staples’ “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” with fervor and Southern dignity, brought authentic Stax grooves to Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y”, even twisted Elvis’ “Don’t Be Cruel” into a new R&B shape. Best performance I ever saw Dee Dee give.
A major work was born on the Lyons stage that evening, a 40-minute MJF-commissioned world premiere by John Clayton called Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration. Written for Clayton’s crack Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, in league with his son Gerald Clayton’s trio, Stories of a Groove amounts to a triple concerto – or perhaps a concerto grosso – for piano trio and big band. There is an agenda behind it; ever the personable host, John Clayton said that the piece addresses “the current situation in society.” There were drum exchanges between the CHJO’s Jeff Hamilton and the trio’s Obed Calvaire yet they weren’t battles; they were conversations, often subtle and witty. Brother Jeff Clayton delivered a lyrical Johnny Hodges moment on alto sax toward the close, and John allowed himself a couple of rare double bass cadenzas, both leading to dialogues with nephew/son Gerald. You didn’t have to read any specific political details into the piece in order to sense the passion in its marching party grooves or marvel how its complex, diverse structure held together. Again, a major work.
Slipping across the entire fairgrounds to get to the Night Club stage, I caught violinist Regina Carter in midstream, swinging harder than I’ve ever heard this classically-trained player swing before with her quartet. At times, she sounded like Stephane Grappelli at his best. Leslie Odom Jr., the star of Broadway’s Hamilton, could be heard smoothly purveying Nat Cole covers outside the Lyons stage – yawn – but when I entered the arena, I could see that he was holding the crowd spellbound with his high tenor. He was also ingratiatingly funny, still in awe of his recent success, and his conga-accented band made him sound even better. After a sweetly soulful a cappella turn through Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” and an exuberant rap from Hamilton, Odom was through, and the crowd roared for more.
The last set of the night on the Lyons can be called historic – a tribute to the last surviving giant of that first 1958 festival, Sonny Rollins, from a killer quartet of star tenor saxophonists from our day. Not only was an exciting bit of living history made when all four blasted away on “Tenor Madness” and “St. Thomas,” each player brought his own distinct personality and set of interests to the table in solo numbers as well. Branford Marsalis was smooth, fluent and rhythmic in “Way Out West;” Joe Lovano illuminated the more quizzical, meandering aspects of Rollins. Joshua Redman, the most intense of the four, played a long intricate solo all by his lonesome. And there was one of Rollins’ contemporaries, 90-year-old Jimmy Heath, his own elegiac improvisation on “`Round Midnight” on soprano and tenor seemingly unimpaired by age (thanks in part, he later revealed, to softer reeds) and the only one of the four who spoke to the audience. We would hear more from Heath the raconteur on Sunday, which I’ll write about in my next blog post from Monterey.