Monterey Jazz Festival Celebrates 50th Year Hear a preview of the 50th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, which includes Gerald Wilson's specially commissioned piece, Monterey Moods. Wilson and many other jazz luminaries, including Dave Brubeck, celebrate the festival's half-century mark this weekend.
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Monterey Moods

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Monterey Jazz Festival Celebrates 50th Year

Monterey Moods

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

For many, Monterey, California will always be linked musically with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. They made history there in 1967 at the Monterey International Pop Festival. But for years before that momentous event and for decades since, the Monterey Jazz Festival has been delighting music fans. It turns 50 this year.

From member station KXJZ in Sacramento, Paul Conley takes us through its history.

PAUL CONLEY: No one knows the Monterey Jazz Festival like 89-year-old composer and bandleader Gerald Wilson.

GERALD WILSON: 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.

CONLEY: 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 piece "Monterey Moods."

WILSON: It's all about love and romance. So I picked three notes saying Monterey.


WILSON: Monterey. Love is here. Here in Monterey.


CONLEY: Aside from the music, it's easy to see why jazz fans and musicians have been flocking to Monterey for five decades.

TIM JACKSON: With the whales and the sea otters and the dolphins and that sort of thing, it's a beautiful sight to behold.

CONLEY: Tim Jackson has run the festival since 1992.

JACKSON: And when you combine that with the redwoods and the cypress and the 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.

CONLEY: That natural beauty has inspired historic performances by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck.


CONLEY: Though when Brubeck first played the festival, part of his inspiration was man-made.

DAVE BRUBECK: An airplane flew real low over the crowd.


BRUBECK: And I went into my improvisation. I started playing, there we go into the wild blue yonder.




CONLEY: The idea of presenting jazz at the Monterey County Fairgrounds came from the late Jimmy Lyons, a popular San Francisco jazz D.J. Impressed with the success of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, Lyons partnered with San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason. But they had to convince Monterey City officials that a jazz festival there was a good idea, so Lyons asked his friend Dave Brubeck to give a private performance.


BRUBECK: They wanted to see how the town council would react to jazz music and to jazz people. So we were good little boys.


CONLEY: The Monterey Jazz Festival debuted in 1958 to a sold-out crowd of more than 7,000. Monterey's eclectic bent was apparent from year one, when traditional jazz icon Louis Armstrong shared the stage with modern bebopper Dizzy Gillespie. Current festival manager, Tim Jackson, was a toddler back then, but he knows the history.

JACKSON: 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.

CONLEY: The festival went on to program 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.


JOHN HANDY: Monterey, overall, was definitely a highlight in my career. It was an artistic achievement. It was a career booster, and it was very encouraging.


CONLEY: The set by Handy became a landmark jazz album, thanks to a last-minute deal he made with the guy running the sound.

HANDY: As we were about to go on, I asked him if he would tape us. And he said, it will cost you $50, and I said, fine. And he taped the performance. Otherwise, it wouldn't have been recorded.


CONLEY: The John Handy Quintet played just two numbers but by all accounts, blew the audience away and became the talk of that year's festival.

HANDY: I think we had four curtain calls and then, it dawned on - I mean, it really dawned on me that the acceptance had been rather unusual.

CONLEY: But warm audiences aren't unusual at Monterey. Dave Brubeck fondly remembers 1962. That year, Louis Armstrong starred in a musical Brubeck and his wife Iola composed called "The Real Ambassadors."


LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) I'm the real ambassador. It is evident I was sent by government to take your place.

CONLEY: 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.

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

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) In our nation, segregation isn't a legality. Soon our only differences will be in personality. That's what I stand for. Who's the real ambassador, yeah.

CONLEY: The Monterey Jazz Festival has always been about more than just having a good time. Incorporated early on as a nonprofit, Monterey funnels proceeds from ticket sales into local jazz education programs and an international competition for young musicians. And from the start, the festival's three-day schedule has been packed with symposiums, exhibits and panel discussions.

For bandleader Gerald Wilson, the mission of Monterey is infectious, something he fully intends to demonstrate this weekend with his 50th anniversary tribute "Monterey Moods."

WILSON: You're going to hear the whole audience saying Monterey. Because I'm going to be saying it up there. And I'm going to make my band say it some up there while they're playing it.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Conley.

BLOCK: You can hear the Monterey Jazz Festival this weekend, including concerts from the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and Dave Brubeck at our Web site

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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