Monterey Jazz Festival Celebrates 50th Year

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Gerald Wilson (200x150)

For many Baby Boomers, the words "Monterey" and "music" conjure up 1967, when Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin made history at the Monterey International Pop Festival. But for years before and decades after that one-time event, the coastal city south of San Francisco has hosted another music party, with plenty of its own history. This weekend, the Monterey Jazz Festival turns 50.

No one knows the Monterey Jazz Festival like 89-year-old composer and bandleader Gerald Wilson. Wilson first brought his big band to Monterey in 1963 and has performed there every decade since. The festival returned the love by commissioning him to write music for its 20th, 40th and now 50th anniversaries. Wilson calls his new seven-part piece Monterey Moods, which carries the same name as his new album.

"I go every year whether I'm playing there or not, you know, I'm one of the greatest fans there when I'm not appearing there," Wilson says. "They always have the greatest musicians in the world come to the Monterey festival: Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie."

Pianist Dave Brubeck also returns this year. He has played Monterey more than a dozen times, including the first festival in 1958. This weekend, he returns with his quartet, which includes Jim Hall, also a veteran of the very first festival.

Picture Perfect

Aside from the music, Tim Jackson says it is easy to see why people keep coming back to Monterey. He has managed the festival since 1992.

"With the whales and the sea otters and the dolphins and that sort of thing, it's a beautiful sight to behold," Jackson says. "And when you combine that with the redwoods and the Cyprus and oaks going right down to the ocean, it's a magical setting that may be equaled in other places in the world, but probably not surpassed."

That natural beauty has inspired historic performances over the years. However, during a performance of "For All We Know" at the first festival, part of Brubeck's inspiration was man-made.

"An airplane flew real low over the crowd and I went into my improvisation," Brubeck says. "I started playing "'there we go into the wild blue yonder.'"

The idea of presenting jazz at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, home to festivals from the start, came from the late Jimmy Lyons, a popular San Francisco jazz disc jockey who had relocated to the area.

Lyons was impressed with the success of the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and wanted to create something similar in Monterey. He partnered with San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason and lobbied support from local businesses. They had to convince city officials that the festival was a good idea, so Lyons asked his friend Brubeck to give a private performance.

"They wanted to see how the town council would react to jazz music and jazz people," Brubeck says. "So we were good little boys."

Radical Performances

The Monterey Jazz Festival made its debut the next year in a packed fairgrounds arena. Monterey's eclectic bent was apparent from year one, when traditional jazz icon Louis Armstrong shared the stage with bebopper Dizzy Gillespie. Festival manager Jackson was a toddler back then, but he knows the history.

"By the second year, 1959, Ornette Coleman was involved, so I think that there was a clear artistic statement that all genres were welcome at Monterey," Jackson says.

Monterey would later include blues, gospel and world music. Even lesser-known ensembles are welcome at Monterey, like the adventurous quintet led by Bay Area saxophonist John Handy in 1965.

"Monterey overall, it was definitely a highlight in my career," Handy says. "It was an artistic achievement. It was a career-booster and it was very encouraging."

The John Handy Quintet played just two numbers, but by all accounts it blew the audience away and was the talk of that year's festival. The set also became a landmark jazz album, thanks to a last-minute deal Handy made with the sound man.

"As we were about to go on, I asked him if he would tape us," Handy says. "And he said it will cost you 50 dollars. And I said fine, you know. And he taped the performance. Otherwise, it wouldn't have been recorded."

Monterey has been a place of not only radical debuts, but also radical ideologies. In 1962, Louis Armstrong starred in a musical Brubeck and his wife Iola composed called The Real Ambassadors. The show was a response to Armstrong's selection by the State Department to serve as a cultural ambassador abroad despite racial inequality at home.

"The only performance of The Real Ambassadors was at Monterey," Brubeck says. "They would not do it on Broadway because it dealt with integration and they were afraid of it. So you've gotta have these places that'll take some risk, and they know their audience. That audience was so great at Monterey. People were crying. Louis was crying."

The Monterey Jazz Festival has always been about more than just having a good time. Incorporated early on as a non-profit, it contributes $700,000 annually to jazz education. Symposia, exhibits and panel discussions pack the weekend schedule. It's also one of the few festivals that regularly commission new works, pushing the boundaries while celebrating the legacy of jazz.

For bandleader Gerald Wilson, the mission of Monterey is infectious, something he says he intends to demonstrate at this coming festival.

"I want them to hear those three notes saying 'Monterey,'" Wilson says. You're going to hear the whole audience saying 'Monterey.' Cause I'm gonna be saying it up there. And I'm gonna make my band say it some while they're planning it. So that's what I'm hoping for."

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