September 26, 2021

Monterey Jazz Festival artists carry on the tradition of fighting injustice

Set amid the 22 mossy, oak-covered acres of the Monterey County Fairgrounds, the Monterey Jazz Festival can feel like a forest escape from the constant torrent of ominous news. But from the very beginning, Monterey has featured artists determined to fight injustice on and off the bandstand, a ruling prerogative of truth that continues when the nation’s longest-running jazz festival celebrates its 60th season of the year. Friday to Sunday September 15. 17.

Among the jazz legends who performed at the first festival in 1958 was Sonny Rollins, who, at 28, was at the height of his reign as the most influential tenor saxophonist of the decade. A few months earlier, he had released his period album Riverside “Freedom Suite”, which included his brief statement making it clear that liberation in his mind was more political and cultural than musical.

“How ironic that the Negro,” he wrote, “who more than any other people can claim American culture as his own, be persecuted and repressed.

One of the first jazz artists of his generation to take up the torch of the emerging civil rights movement, Rollins extended a lineage inextricably linked to Billie Holiday, which also performed in Monterey’s inaugural season. With her anguished renditions of “Strange Fruit,” which she had introduced on a classic recording two decades earlier, Lady Day helped force the United States to face the horror and shame of the lynching.

And Louis Armstrong, whose effervescent affability as an artist sometimes obscured his genius as a musician, arrived at the fairgrounds soon after, denouncing President Dwight Eisenhower’s inaction in the face of Governor Orval’s 1957 deployment. Arkansas National Guard faubus to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School. “The way they treat my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” Satchmo told an enterprising 21-year-old journalism student, who sold the scoop to The Associated Press.

Six decades later, a lot has changed, but the nation’s precarious state casts a ruthless shadow over the fairgrounds, leaving many musicians wondering what role their music could play.

One Response will premiere on Saturday, September 16, when bassist John Clayton presents a festival-commissioned work in several movements for the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra in Los Angeles which he co-conducts with drummer Jeff Hamilton and the Gerald Clayton Trio. , which includes his son, Grammy-nominated pianist Gerald Clayton.

Elder Clayton provided an update on the new track “Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration” after the first rehearsal on August 22 in Santa Monica, where he detailed the raw emotional currents running through moves like “Slow Burn Baby Burn , “” And the walls collapsed “and” Prayer to clean up. “

“The working title for ‘Slow Burn’ was ‘Angry’,” said the 65-year-old musician. “It’s a slow burn that begins with Gerald freely opening rubato, where you would almost imagine a young man walking down a dark, lonely street.

“Another movement, ‘Just Us’, brings us to a duet between Gerald and my brother Jeff Clayton. I write for individuals more than for instruments, and I have heard my brother’s alto saxophone voice, which is very powerful and spiritual, offering purification.

Drummer Matt Wilson, longtime member of the late Charlie Haden’s politically charged Liberation Music Orchestra, is inclined to let his own music speak for itself. But the new Honey and Salt ensemble, which it presents on Friday evening, plays compositions inspired by the verses of Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), including poems like “Anywhere and Everywhere People” (recited by Christian McBride on the eponymous album Palmetto by group) and “Choose” seem to diagnose and describe the present moment as if the poet was glued to CNN.

One clenched fist raised and ready,

Or the open hand that asks and waits.

To choose:

Because we meet by one or the other.

“With material like ‘Choose’, it’s simple words that tell it as it is,” Wilson says. “I’m not here to change the world, but this music really conveys the unity and the aspect of flexibility, tension and liberation. There are collisions and it is sometimes difficult. It is a cry, an act of exaltation. There is grain, but all should not be angry. I think humor helps. Where would we be politically without “The Daily Show”? If we can’t laugh, we have serious problems.

Wilson has spent a lot of time thinking about how jazz musicians can connect with audiences, and humor is an essential part of his arsenal, a lawless tradition dating back to the origins of music. It is no coincidence that political comic pioneer Mort Sahl was the master of ceremonies at the first Monterey Jazz Festival, or that ancient visionary Dizzy Gillespie was such a beloved figure at the fairgrounds.

Comedy couldn’t change the fact that jazz was fading as popular music when disc jockey Jimmy Lyons kicked off the festival with the help of Chronicle music columnist Ralph J. Gleason. But Monterey has kept an ear open to new musical developments, especially in the Bay Area.

Jefferson Airplane performed at the festival in 1966, and Janis Joplin returned to the fairgrounds in 1967, at the height of the legendary Bay Area Summer of Love, with Big Brother & the Holding Company just months after her performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. , who consciously drew inspiration from the jazz festival in seeking to increase the respect and visibility of rock music.

Six decades later, no one will be more visible on the fair grounds this year than violinist Regina Carter, who will perform all three evenings as the star artist of Monterey Jazz. She presents her homage to Ella Fitzgerald on Friday, plays a set on Saturday evening with her quartet around her original compositions, and revisits her “Southern Comfort” project on Sunday evening.

The Detroit-raised MacArthur Fellowship recipient delved deep into her family’s roots in Alabama for her 2014 blues and folk album “Southern Comfort” (Sony Masterworks), an album that evokes her family’s journey into the world. Great Migration which has seen some 6 million African Americans leave the South for urban destinations in the North and West. As the trip required her to investigate the minstrel and the brutality of slavery and Jim Crow, when she took the stage, “It’s my time to leave all this nastiness outside these doors.” , Carter said.

For Carter, jazz at its best offers a utopian vision where musicians can create a sacred space with the audience, where improvisation opens up space to address conflict.

“There is room for discord, for tension and release,” she says. “All of this is explained by the music and it’s okay and it feels good. You need these tensions. If we can all come together and be in the same room in the name of love and respect, this is what it is.

Andrew Gilbert is a freelance writer.

Monterey Jazz Festival: 6 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on Friday, September 15; 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday September 16; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday, September 17. $ 20 to $ 410. Monterey County Fairgrounds, 2004 Fairground Road, Monterey. (888) 248-6499. www.montereyjazzfestival.org

To listen to The Chronicle playlist for this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival: www.sfchronicle.com/entertainment


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