The Best Of 24 New Year's Eves In Jazz


The producer of Toast Of The Nation remembers her favorite New Year's Eve moments. iStockPhoto hide caption

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I am swimming in "best of" lists. It will take all of 2010 to get through the best of 2009. And then I'll be a year behind!

But there's no time to think about that now, with this year's Toast of the Nation fast approaching. As the producer of 24 consecutive live New Year's Eve coast-to-coast jazz broadcasts for WBGO and NPR, I'd like to mention a few of those celebrations that I hope will never leave my memory.


—On New Year's Eve 1983, I was a wide-eyed production assistant at NPR's old headquarters, on M Street in Washington, D.C. Tim Owens was in charge, Ben Sidran the host. Imagine this line-up:

Jon Hendricks and Company at Lush Life, New York
Betty Carter at Fat Tuesday's, New York
Jay McShann & Claude "Fiddler" Williams, Eddie Lockjaw Davis at Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase, Chicago
Bobby McFerrin, Joe and Eddie Henderson, John Handy at Great American Music Hall, San Francisco

—I remember little of my first Toast Of The Nation. But I do remember Dec. 31, 1987, where I was in charge at Mikell's in my own neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Mikell's was a corner club at Columbus and 97th, a true hangout for musicians and fans, and home to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. On New Year's Eve 1987, pianist Michel Camilo — then new in town from the Dominican Republic — opened for flutist Dave Valentin. WBGO's James Browne was the emcee, and our wonderful young director pointed James in early. OMG! We had a miscue at the top of our segment. But Michel Camilo absolutely dazzled me.

—The next year (1988), I assigned myself to the Dakota — then in St. Paul, Minn. — for young pianist and singer Harry Connick Jr. The airline lost Harry's baggage, and in the hours before the show, he had to buy new clothes for the evening. It was a fun show, though. The Twin Cities' own Moore by Four — Sanford Moore directing — opened with a Christmas set, almost upstaging Harry.

—Also on Dec. 31, 1988, Carmen McRae opened for the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra at the Vista Hotel, later destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001. The Orchestra was deep into something intense, and Joe Lovano was soloing his brains out, when, at midnight, Mel segued the big band into "Auld Lang Syne." Joe simply continued wailing over all, and people were dancing. It was a triumph of music meeting the moment.

—The next year (1989), I was freezing with Clark Terry in Chicago at Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase (the old location, on S. Michigan Avenue). After midnight, Terry said, "I'd like to start the new year with some Ellington" and played "Mood Indigo." With Willie Pickens on piano, it made for a wonderful evening.

—The following year (1990) I went to Catalina's in Hollywood, Calif. for Freddie Hubbard's set. Art Blakey had just passed away, so I produced a feature about Blakey. At the intermission, Freddie joined host James Browne to talk about working with Blakey. Everything but the feature was live! For scriptwriting, I toted my Brother typewriter from New York to L.A., and I can picture the James tapping out his cue cards on that now ancient machine. (Which I still use from time to time). I recall Ernie Watts was the guest on tenor sax, and there was a wonderful performance of Cedar Walton's "Bolivia." Later, we made the set into an edition of American Jazz Radio Festival, and a listener contacted us to say that he'd pulled off the freeway to listen to Freddie. Great mix by Phil Edwards, by the way.

—Well, I'm going to skip a few years ... on Dec. 31, 1993, Dave Jemilo of the Green Mill in Chicago was presenting Ellington Dynasty, a local band. We added Harold Ashby, one of Ellington's great tenor players, to the mix. I interviewed Mr. Ashby in advance, enjoying his stories and his smile — he had the nicest way about him. When I met him again at the rehearsal in Chicago on the afternoon of Dec. 31, Harold let me know that since we had met, he had suffered a minor heart attack. However, he didn't let a heart attack keep him from working on New Year's Eve, and halfway across the country. (He lived in the subsidized artist apartments in Manhattan Plaza.) That day, I saw something I hadn't seen before: The older musicians needed to play, and needed to work, so they came out in adverse circumstances to deliver on a promise, and to take home the promised fee.

—On Dec. 31, 1994, WBGO host Rhonda Hamilton and NPR producer Rolando Arrieta were in Chicago for organist Charles Earland — the "Mighty Burner" — at the Bop Shop. Lew Soloff on trumpet and then-newcomer Eric Alexander on tenor were additions to the band. At midnight, street revelers fired shots into the air, and our music mixer Timothy Powell dove to the floor of the MetroMobile recording truck. Timothy always said he kept his hands on the faders, though! (I believe him.) After the party in Chicago, the broadcast jumped to Yoshi's in Berkeley, Calif. — not yet located in Oakland — for Betty Carter. One of the young guys in her band was Eric Revis on bass. Having come home from the Illinois Jacquet Big Band segment in midtown Manhattan, I laid flat out on my couch, listening to Betty in California, in jazz heaven.

—I'm up to almost 1000 words, and haven't gotten to New Year's Eve 1996 with Tito Puente in New York, Wess "Warmdaddy" Anderson and a great New Orleans band joined by a young Stefon Harris, and the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra with newcomer Diana Krall at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles. (I will arbitrarily skip eight years here.) Then there's Kurt Elling at the Green Mill again with Stefon Harris again guesting, and also the great Chicago tenor player Ed Peterson who lives and teaches in New Orleans and practically stole the show ... Joshua Redman's Elastic Trio with Sam Yahel and Brian Blade (2004) at the "new" Yoshi's in Oakland ... the post-Katrina Toast of the Nation from Tipitina's in New Orleans which, by the way, strung together Henry Butler in Boston, the Brubeck Brothers in Florida, Arturo O'Farrill's Afro-Cuban Orchestra at Birdland, and the Hot 8 Brass Band, Donald Harrison, and Galactic at Tip's ... Rhonda Hamilton hosting again in 2006 from the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, with Karrin Allyson across town at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre ... and last year, when I was back at NPR in Washington to hear the show unfold from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. with Hiromi in Boston, the Mingus Big Band in NYC, clarinetist Evan Christopher in NOLA, Pink Martini at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and Jake Shimabukuro on solo ukelele. That was a great show!

Many musicians eschew New Year's Eve, but it's a big night for those who want to work, the people who like their music close and personal, and the radio audience that dips in and out (or stays for the whole time) with the complete, coast-to-coast Toast of the Nation from year to year, century to century, Millennium to Millennium. Speaking of once in a thousand years, at 3:15 a.m. on this year's Toast, we will reprise Steve Turre's Sanctified Shells from Dec. 31, 1999, also at Yoshi's. (You can also hear it on demand on JazzSet With Dee Dee Bridgewater.) At midnight, the band stretched out for almost 20 minutes on "The Creator Has A Master Plan" — Pharoah Sanders was also on stage. After the music, Steve bid us "peace on the planet." It didn't work out that way, but we still have the music.



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