Music in the Air - Page 3

The Monterey Jazz Festival and its mid-century rise to glory
Music in the Air
In silhouette, band leader Gunther Schuller conducts with the crowd behind him, 1959.
Music in the Air
MJF usherettes looking sharp as can be.
Music in the Air
Billie Holiday at the 1958 Festival.

As the planning process extended into 1958, a Festival site was selected: the Monterey County Fairgrounds, just off State Route 1. It was bucolic but with an arena (otherwise used for horse shows) big enough to accommodate anticipated crowds. "We had $6,700 to spend," Lyons recalled in the 1978 book Dizzy, Duke, The Count and Me. "We asked people to loan us $100 each, on non-interest loans for a couple of years."

The first three-day Festival, remembered attendee Clint Eastwood, then a 28-year-old uncredited actor with musical training, "was more like a fair than a series of planned concerts...Typical of events of that era, the sound system didn't always work, and someone would always be coming out on stage, tapping on the microphones or blowing into them. There was feedback, a lot of fog, and old-time planes were flying in. But everyone had a good time."

And that included the performers, whose introductions were emceed over the course of the weekend by Gillespie—"It means money in our pockets," he acknowledged to the audience—and by topical stand-up comedian Mort Sahl.

Although Sahl had been performing since the early '50s between jazz sets in the dark, smoky clubs of North Beach, he doubted his ability to hold the attention of an outdoor swarm of music lovers. But he succeeded so admirably that Lyons later rewarded him with a gift of two new corduroy jackets from Sears. On stage Friday night, Gillespie delighted trumpet elder Louis Armstrong by kissing his hand.

Aside from old Lyons pals Gillespie and Brubeck in several ensemble configurations, the 1958 Festival featured such world-class stars as Gerry Mulligan, Shelley Manne, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Giuffre, Benny Carter, and the nattily attired Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). An unsteady Billie Holiday also appeared, nine months before her untimely death. Northern California was represented by the likes of local musicians Leroy Vinnegar, Rudy Salvini, and Cal Tjader.

There was also the first of what would become a tradition of jazz discussion panels. A break from the music, the panel was comprised of Armstrong, Gillespie, journalist Gleason, and the MJQ's John Lewis, who'd be dubbed the Festival's 'musical consultant' the following year. And there were refined tributaries from the so-called Third Stream, through classically tinged offerings by the Monterey Jazz Festival Symphony and other like-minded ensembles.

The Festival seemingly succeeded not only in realizing its founders' long-held dreams, but also in bringing together a diverse demographic from near and far and entertaining them with music that ranged from comfortably old-time to vibrantly modern.