The Monterey Jazz Festival celebrates the 100th birthday of Thelonious Monk, captured here at his festival debut in 1963. Photo by Ray Avery.
Less than two weeks after the attacks of 9/11, a deeply unsettled audience gathered for the Monterey Jazz Festival, then in its 44th year. There were last-minute program changes, because some New York musicians couldn’t make it on time to rehearse a new commission.
With planes taking off from the nearby regional airport repeatedly buzzing the Monterey County Fairgrounds, a current of fear and uncertainty was palpable in the main arena.
Artistic director Tim Jackson knew he couldn’t do much to assuage the anxiety, but he recalled that the first festival in 1958 had opened with Dizzy Gillespie playing an unaccompanied rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Somehow his staff located the recording. As the clarion trumpet rang out over the arena, Gillespie’s horn seemed to envelop the crowd in a comforting embrace, connecting the listeners with each other and with an earlier era, one marked by very different troubles.
Though rarely in such a dramatic fashion, the Monterey Jazz Festival has always had a knack for drawing on its own history, whether making a point of presenting artists who had first played the fairgrounds as high school students, or celebrating milestone anniversaries of momentous performances.
When the nation’s longest consecutively-running jazz festival returns to the fairgrounds for the 60th season this weekend, Sept. 15-17, its storied past will be very much part of the present.
One of the more anticipated sets will feature pianist and NEA Jazz MasterKenny Barron leading a centennial tribute to Gillespie on Friday in the main area. Barron made his Monterey debut with the trumpet legend at the age of 20 in 1963, and has returned frequently since then. His trio is joined by several special guests, including trumpeters Sean Jones and Roy Hargrove and Cuban conguero Pedrito Martinez (highlighting Gillespie’s pioneering role in the creation of Latin jazz, via his seminal recordings with Chano Pozo).
Saturday night’s main arena program kicks off with a tribute to retired tenor sax titan Sonny Rollins, one of the few surviving artists who played the inaugural festival. (None of the other 1958 veterans, including saxophonist George Coleman, arranger Bill Holman and vocalist Betty Bennett are performing either.)
Featuring an all-star trio led by pianist Gerald Clayton, the ensemble brings together a formidable array of saxophone masters, including 90-year-old Jimmy Heath, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman, who made his MJF debut with the award-winning Berkeley High Jazz Band in the mid-1980s.
Violinist and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Regina Carter performs a different program every night as the festival’s Showcase Artist, opening in the Main Arena Friday with a centennial tribute to Ella Fitzgerald based on her latest album “Ella: Accentuate the Positive” (OKeh). On Saturday, she plays a set with her quartet in the Night Club, and Sunday hits Dizzy’s Den with her project Southern Comfort, a musical investigation into her family’s roots in the South.
The festival continues its long history of showcasing Southern California-based big bands with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, which premieres bassist John Clayton’s festival commission, “Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration,” with the Gerald Clayton Trio as special guests. And pianist John Beasley’s MONK’estra celebrates the centennial of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk, whose 1963 and ‘64 performances at Monterey were documented on excellent albums.
Monterey wasn’t the first jazz festival. That distinction belongs to the Newport Jazz Festival, launched by George Wein in 1954 with support from the Newport society couple Elaine and Louis Lorillard.
Monterey DJ Jimmy Lyons and San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph J. Gleason started laying the groundwork for a similar festival a few years later, convincing Monterey city leaders to support the plan after producing a successful series of concerts by popular artists like Erroll Garner and Dave Brubeck.
With Modern Jazz Quartet pianist/composer John Lewis serving as advisor, the festival's first decade offered an extraordinary array of jazz talent, ranging from foundational figures like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Earl “Fatha” Hine, Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins; to modern jazz patriarchs Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, and Max Roach; and avant garde pioneers like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.
In the mid-1960s, as jazz and folk music were swamped by the rock tsunami unleashed by the Beatles, Monterey bucked the market trend by turning several veteran players into bona fide stars. Oakland-reared saxophonist John Handy brought a singular quintet (it included violinist Michael White and electric guitarist Jerry Hahn) to the Main Arena in 1965, which you can now hear in the classic album “Recorded Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival,” the first of a series of albums for Columbia.
A year later, in 1966, saxophonist Charles Lloyd recorded the hit album “Forest Flower” (Atlantic) with his quartet, featuring Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette, and they became part of Bill Graham’s regular rotation of acts at the Fillmore throughout 1967. Through Gleason’s guidance, the festival anticipated the San Francisco rock explosion, booking Jefferson Airplane and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1966, which paved the way for the Monterey Pop Festival the following June.
The festival doesn’t pack the same kind of punch these days. Nothing does. But it often plays a significant role by introducing artists to the California scene, like Italian-born jazz vocalist Roberta Gambarini, who made a powerful first impression at the festival in 2001, as a special guest with trumpeter Roy Hargrove.