Monterey Jazz Festival Staves Off Doomsayers

Despite vicissitudes in the jazz market, Monterey lives up to its original raison d'être.

All music festivals have their own set of insider politics, but jazz festivals seem more divisive than most. Maybe it’s the flagging market, or the desperation of full-time musicians, or balkanization within the genre proper. Whatever the case, several local jazz fests came under fire in the past few years — either for not booking locally, or not paying enough, or favoring one particular niche market. While those criticisms may have been valid, they also show the extent to which we treat jazz fest organizers as torchbearers.

It’s a dicey issue, said Monterey Jazz Festival marketing associate Timothy Orr, who can sympathize with both the struggling artists and the gatekeepers since he’s also a part-time jazz drummer. Orr says that Monterey Jazz occupies a unique position. Not only is it large and well-established, it’s also a place where mainstream acts coexist — more or less peacefully — with the avant-garde. Historically, that’s always been part of Monterey’s raison d’être.

“According to Ken Burns, jazz died in the mid-1970s, and was somehow resuscitated in the Eighties by all these young lions,” Orr said. “If you look at Monterey, you’d have no idea.”

Monterey Jazz Fest was the brainchild of a San Francisco DJ named Jimmy Lyons, who built his career hosting the “Jazz Jubilee” show on radio station KNBC. In the early Fifties he moved to the Big Sur area, set his sights on Monterey County Fairgrounds, and dreamed up the idea for a giant annual jazz festival. That dream came to fruition in 1958. According to Orr, the festival booked imaginative lineups right from its inception. Over the years, festival-goers would see the likes of Ornette Coleman, Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, Charles Lloyd, Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra, Rashied Ali, Jason Moran, The Bad Plus, and ROVA Saxophone Quartet, among others. Lyons left in 1992 (and died two years later), bequeathing the fest to Tim Jackson, who also runs the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz.

Under Jackson’s tutelage, Monterey Jazz has sustained a pretty heavy Bay Area presence. On an average year, about 15 to 20 percent of the bookings come from the Bay Area, Orr said. That’s partly the result of Jackson’s connection to the equally locavore-ish Kuumbwa Center. It’s also a way of placating the festival’s audience, since about 41 percent of ticket sales came from the Bay Area this year. Most importantly, it shows a conscious effort to include left-field and improvised music scenes, for which the Bay Area is a veritable hotbed. (We’re the home of Mills College, after all.) Lyons was known for booking a ton of big bands; Jackson tries to leverage several different niche markets, balancing Harry Connick Jr. with Fred Hersch and Lisa Mezzacappa.

Orr works out of a flat in West Oakland, and he’s very keyed in to the local warehouse scene. It’s not unusual to see him at hole-in-the-wall performing arts spaces, where people sit on folding chairs and the bar serves juice or green tea. A couple Mondays ago he came to Aram Shelton‘s showcase at the Ivy Room, intent on seeing a young, little-known guitar player named Ava Mendoza. He said he’d love to get her booked at Monterey some day.

“Everyone has their own take on what ‘jazz’ is,” Orr said, explaining that he’s well aware of the “death of jazz” theories, and the challenges facing local musicians. “How do you create a jazz audience? How do you keep a jazz audience? If they start out with Louis Armstrong, how do you get them to listen to John Zorn?”

Such questions have flummoxed Monterey Jazz fest organizers for years. Yet, looking at the 2010 lineup — which includes Angélique Kidjo, Ahmad Jamal, Trombone Shorty, Dianne Reeves, Gretchen Parlato, Lisa Mezzacappa, The Jazz Mafia, and The Nice Guy Trio, among many others — Orr is pleased. If jazz died, you’d never know it.


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