Thursday, September 27, 2007

MJF/50, Day 3: In a Sentimental Mood

Originally published on Jazz Police.

The third day of the Monterey Jazz Festival is always a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the final evening in the Arena is invariably a star-studded event. On the other hand, it’s the final evening. You want the barbecued ribs, the reunions with friends, the interesting conversations with strangers and fellow jazz fans, the mellowness despite the crowds, and especially the music to go on and on.

I’m kicking myself for missing Ornette Coleman, but who scheduled him for 2:30 on Sunday afternoon, anyway? Could I have handled his complex, unpredictable, audacious music with the California sun beating down on my head? Plenty of other people did, and many enjoyed it, according to reviews I read later. Coleman played with three basses: Tony Falanga (bowed acoustic), the marvelous Charnett Moffett (acoustic with wah-wah), and Al Macdowell (electric), all accompanied by Coleman’s son Denardo on the drums. Although it won’t be anywhere near the same as the live performance, I’m getting Coleman’s Sound Grammar (with Falanga, Denardo, and Greg Cohen) ASAP. This is the album that just won Coleman the Pulitzer Prize.

Later that afternoon, we stopped by the Night Club to hear the Monterey County High School All-Star Band directed by Paul Contos. Several school bands performed that day, dubbed “Family Day” and sponsored by Macy’s. It’s part of MJF’s tradition of spotlighting student artists and supporting jazz education; Joshua Redman, Benny Green, and Patrice Rushen played the Festival with their high school bands. The All-Star Band recently toured Japan. In the Night Club, vocalist Simone van Seenus performed a challenging duet with bassist Ryan Grech, and the band came together for “Cry Me a River.” The room was full of parents and grandparents.

Over lunch in the Festival’s outdoor food court—a grassy area filled with picnic tables surrounded by food booths, many with smoke billowing from grills and most with long lines in front of them—we spoke with people from Miami who’d met people from Wisconsin who’d met a couple from Dubai.

Shortly before 7:00 p.m., we followed the crowds into the Arena for the closing show. Fifty years ago, comedian Mort Sahl emceed the first Monterey Jazz Festival with Dizzy Gillespie. Sahl returned solo this year, joking that “you wouldn’t call this a steady job.” He introduced the MJF 50th Anniversary All-Stars, a dream band featuring Festival artist-in-residence Terence Blanchard (trumpet), James Moody (saxophones), Benny Green (piano and musical director), Nnenna Freelon (voice), and Blanchard trio members Derrick Hodge (bass) and Kendrick Scott (drums). In January, the All-Stars will begin a national tour, bringing jazz—and the Monterey Jazz Festival brand—to over 50 cities.

Brand? This is the age of the brand. Why shouldn’t the Monterey Jazz Festival trade on its good name and reputation as one of the world’s preeminent music events? In addition to the All-Stars, there’s now a Monterey Jazz Festival Records label, which just released a series of live-at-Monterey recordings. The size and depth of the Festival’s vaults (more than 1,600 tapes, over 2,000 hours of concerts) ensures future recordings should the first six (Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, and a festival sampler) prove successful. The Festival has become a book publisher as well. Its debut release, The Art of Jazz: Monterey Jazz Festival/50 Years is a hardcover coffee-table book with a foreword by Clint Eastwood, classic photos, and full-color images of posters and program covers spanning the Festival’s history. If you want, you can order a limited edition copy signed by Eastwood. While you’re at the official MJF/50 online store, buy a mug. This year’s posters are totally sold out. We watched a woman buy the last one at the official MJF stuff booth. It had been taped to a box for display and had to be cut off with a knife.

We were hoping to get hooded sweatshirts, but they were gone. Later, we found some at the Brother Thelonious booth. Brother Thelonious is a Belgian-style abbey ale; sales benefit the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. It’s tasty and it supports jazz education, which makes it the ideal beer for every occasion. Brother Thelonious normally comes in a big (750 ml.) bottle topped with a traditional cork-and-wire, though the Festival served it in plastic cups.

The All-Stars were terrific, even though Benny Green claimed that playing together was so new for them they hadn’t yet figured out the timing of a 60-minute show; they ran over, but nobody seemed to care. Someone had written lyrics to Gerald Wilson’s “Monterey Moods,” which Wilson premiered in instrumental form the night before. Freelon sang them beautifully. Blanchard’s cinematic horn starred in John Coltrane’s “Straight Street.” At one point, Benny Green called Blanchard “the most positive presence in the music today,” an apt description of the amiable, accessible, prodigiously talented musician and composer. The set ended with “Time After Time” and Freelon’s voice—warm, pure, and bright—soaring over the crowd.

Next up: living legend Dave Brubeck, the man whose music inspired the Monterey City Council in 1957 to okay the first jazz festival despite strong misgivings. “The very idea: bringing jazz to a respectable community,” Ira Kamin noted in the first book about the Festival, Dizzy, Duke, the Count and Me (1978). “[Festival founder Jimmy Lyons] had to convince the community that jazz (which meant black people and junkies) wouldn’t spoil the children, wilt the vegetation, or corrupt the coastline.” Brubeck was an ideal ambassador, and he has been a Festival supporter and performer ever since. At the closing concert, he and his trio—Bobby Militello on alto saxophone and flute, Michael Moore on bass, Randy Jones on drums—gave us exactly what we hoped for: elegant, swinging jazz under the stars.

Midway through his set, Brubeck introduced guest Jim Hall, who had also been at the first Festival. “We haven’t had a chance to play one note together,” Brubeck said, “but we’ll start in right now.” Hall opened with the first sweet notes of “All the Things You Are” and Brubeck’s quartet made a perfect entry. Everyone on stage had silver hair. At one point, I was struck by how extraordinary it was that in a large open-air stadium filled with thousands of metal chairs, Brubeck was able to play a solo so quiet it seemed he was whispering in my ear. How lovely to be in a crowd of people who listen…and three cheers for the sound system. After a series of seemingly unrelated chords, Brubeck made a sharp turn into “Take Five,” one of the great jazz tunes that, like “’Round Midnight,” will still be played when the MJF celebrates its 500th year.

The grand finale was Sonny Rollins, the Mount Rushmore of the saxophone. He came out blowing and blew so hard the clouds retreated. I mean it. When he walked on stage, there was a solid ring of clouds all around; by the time he finished, the sky was all moon and stars. Of course he played “St. Thomas” and “In a Sentimental Mood,” and there were other songs I recognized but can’t name. Every member of his band—Clifton Anderson on trombone, Bobby Broom on guitar, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Kimati Dinizulu on percussion, and Willie Jones III (fresh from Saturday’s Ernestine Anderson show at the Night Club) had a chance to shine. People with early flights were rising to leave, but quietly, taking care not to disturb the rest of us. And then it was over. In one night, we had heard the old and the new, the founders and the future.

Earlier, over lunch, a woman from San Francisco asked how often we’d come to the Festival and whether we’d return. I told her three times and hopefully yes. “This festival is addictive,” she said, stating what’s now obvious to me. There are worse things to get hooked on than jazz by the sea.

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