Each September down on the spectacular Monterey Peninsula, jazz fans gather for a celebratory weekend to enjoy some of the world’s leading artists practicing this unique American art form. The hip and music-savvy crowd attends the internationally acclaimed Monterey Jazz Festival.
Founded in 1958, it is the oldest continuous event of its kind in the world, and many believe it to be the most artistically distinguished. Over the years, almost every major jazz artist from Louis Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis has performed at the park-like Monterey County Fairgrounds.
The nonprofit Monterey Jazz Festival supports jazz education programs for high school kids, and is run by a board of directors that includes local business types and Clint Eastwood. The movie legend got interested in jazz as a kid in Oakland. After a hot acting career, he directed his first film in Monterey, the suspenseful Play Misty for Me. Eastwood shot part of the film at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1970, with the late jazz pianist Errol Garner playing “Misty” for cheering fans.
Eastwood told me, “I’ve been a jazz fan since I was a kid. I first came to Monterey in 1951 when I was in the service. Even when I was in college, I kept coming back to the Monterey Peninsula. I was here in 1958 at the first festival.” Today he’s a big part of the scene at this jazz powerhouse.
Clint Eastwood (left) with George Wein, founder
of the Newport Jazz Festival and honoree at the Monterey
Jazz Festival’s Jazz Legend Gala
Credit: Craig Lovell for the Monterey Jazz Festival
Clint Eastwood a ‘fresh face’
Late last month the Monterey Jazz Festival celebrated its 53rd birthday with more than 40,000 laid-back fans in attendance, including Eastwood. He launched the festival weekend with a private party at his historic Mission Ranch Hotel on the Carmel River. When the festival general manager, Tim Jackson, commented at the party that the festival was hosting “many fresh jazz faces this year,” a weathered Eastwood quipped, “I’m one of the fresh faces he’s talking about.”
The party, billed as a Jazz Legend Gala, honored George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival. Wein started the Newport Festival in 1954, and before you complain to the Northside San Francisco editor, let’s hasten to add that it’s necessary to include that word “continuous” to provide the credibility to the 1958-founded Monterey Jazz Festival’s claim that it’s the oldest event of its kind in the world.
Unfortunately the Newport Jazz Festival faced financial difficulties with the unruly crowds and ceased production several times through the years. The Newport event certainly has had (it still has) artistic triumphs in its present reincarnation. But California’s Monterey Jazz Festival has been the golden jazz child, blessed by the artistry of its performers as well as the artistry of its location on that incomparable peninsula.
The requisite barbecue
Alchemy occurs there — sun, fog, sea otters, Cannery Row, the windswept Lone Cyprus on Seventeen Mile Drive, the crashing coastline of Big Sur to the south, the blue Pacific, and, of course, the matchless golf courses.
But for Monterey Jazz Festival weekend, add to the above clam chowder, Louisiana gumbo, artichokes, homemade peach cobbler, California wines, Dungeness crab sandwiches, ambrosia burgers at Big Sur’s Nepenthe, and obviously the festival’s requisite barbecue. To say that many appetites are fulfilled at the Monterey Jazz Festival would be an understatement.
But enough of this Chamber of Commerce prose, what about the music? To appreciate the sweet essence of this singular event, here are some highlights in no particular order: song stylist Dianne Reeves; New Orleans-bred Harry Connick Jr.; another New Orleans native, Trombone Shorty; and West African singer-dancer Angelique Kidjo.
Dianne Reeves is ‘misty’
Each year the Monterey Jazz Festival appoints an artist in residence who turns up throughout the weekend in a variety of contexts. This year it was the incomparable vocalist Dianne Reeves. At the Eastwood party she commented: “The music [jazz] is living, and it’s in the moment.” Then she demonstrated that philosophy with her three-octave range by slowly developing a tribute to another three-octave artist, Sarah Vaughan, and to Clint Eastwood, when she sang the Erroll Garner ballad, “Misty.”When she began softly with “Look at me, I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree … and I feel like I’m floating on a cloud” she had all of us lucky enough to be there with Eastwood floating on a cloud.
That highly personal approach held over into the festival proper when Reeves did her own arena set and later that weekend with the All-Star High School Orchestra and even for duets with West African singer Angelique Kidjo. The two brought the enthusiastic audience to its feet, even an old guy with a cane who waved it around in tribute.
Credit: Craig Lovell for the
Monterey Jazz Festival
Henry Connick Jr. ‘rambles’
I don’t know what I expected from Harry Connick Jr. beyond his hit “It Had to be You” from the movie When Harry Met Sally. I believed his routine was to just step up to the mike, tastefully deliver some ballads, and once in a while play admirable jazz piano learned in his native New Orleans. Well, he did sing “It Had to be You,” and did it well enough to set off screaming from the younger women in the jam-packed arena. After another couple of straight-ahead ballads, we learned what Connick had in mind with his nine-piece band augmented by a few strings.
That was a kick-ass, hour-plus romp in which the New Orleans, Crescent City spirit took over — the blues, R&B, boogie, and barrelhouse, rent music and rollicking Bourbon Street marching band street music. And with some assistance from trombonist Lucien Barbarin, the band launched into Jelly Roll Morton’s “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” and Connick did just that. He shed his tailored jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and for good measure kicked over his piano bench. Then he shook his booty in a series of playfully lewd, New Orleans-style bumps, shimmies and wiggles. He was engaging, not afraid to shed his male crooner image along with his jacket and knock us out — including Eastwood sitting in the audience under a white baseball cap.
Credit: Craig Lovell for the Monterey Jazz Festival
But it was a charismatic young man from the historic Treme district of New Orleans who created the big buzz this year at Monterey. Skinny as a supermodel and apparently handcrafted from rubber bands, Trombone Shorty played blazing trombone and trumpet, New Orleans jazz, hip-hop, soul, and funk while he bent, stretched, snapped back, shuffled and even did a credible Michael Jackson moonwalk.
Officially he is 23-year-old Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews — an older brother gave him his nickname when he observed “Shorty” in a marching band playing a “’bone’ [trombone] longer than he was.”
In a Monterey Jazz Festival weekend of heavy hitters — and this was the best festival I have attended in several years — Trombone Shorty not only held his own but scored an upset. He was a smash. They’ll talk about this one for a long time.
The Sunday afternoon concert of the Monterey Jazz Festival is always satisfying and features incredible young performers from high schools around California who benefit from the festival’s jazz education program. They are frequently augmented by a superstar like Wynton Marsalis, for example, who performed with the kids one year. And on this Sunday afternoon, the ever-present Dianne Reeves sang a few numbers with them.
But the afternoon hit a resounding bang with a diminutive West African dynamo from Benin, Angelique Kidjo. Not a musical household name — at least not to me — Kidjo blended several African musical types of traditional chants, folk and pop songs right along with soul, funk and hip-hop. She evoked such American artists as James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and even San Francisco’s Carlos Santana. All of this in her unique African, and in this case, sassy style. “That’s what my music is all about,” she told the audience, “loving, sharing and giving.” She did all of that, even inviting a couple of dozen enthusiastic audience members to join her onstage to gyrate along with her. She got them dancing and the audience cheering. It was a great Monterey debut for Kidjo.
Also satisfying and of note
Other artists and performances of note this year were trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who came along with a fine big and brassy band with vocalist Roberta Gambarini; Les McCann, a favorite, “gospely” and funky jazz pianist; sisters Celia and Helene Faussart raised by a French father and an Cameroonian mother, who bill themselves as Les Nubians and mix their African roots music with French jazz vis-à-vis Django Reinhart and even our own R&B and hip-hop; Chick Corea who will be remembered for his seminal band, Return to Forever; and jazz legend Ahmad Jamal who closed the festival Sunday night with a densely percussive set.
Jazz has gone ‘legit’
Ernest Beyl enjoyed the barbecue and the music at the 53rd annual Monterey Jazz Festival. He’s been attending the event since 1958. “I’m making plans to attend the 100th,” he insists.
Yes, perhaps jazz was born in bordellos, juke joints and honkytonks and later nurtured in boozy nightclubs where devotees were not exactly viewed as patrons of the arts. But along the way this illegitimate musical child became a cultural treasure. Today looked on by many as America’s true classical music, jazz is alive and well in concert halls and festivals around the world and has gone decidedly legit. But nowhere is it more alive, pedigreed and legit — if you will — than on California’s elegant Monterey Peninsula, at the much-esteemed Monterey Jazz Festival.