Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Monterey Jazz Festival September 19-20, 1969

From 1958 to the present, the Monterey Jazz Festival has remained one of the best and most popular outdoor music festivals on the west coast and, for that matter, in the world. In my youth, I got to go to the festival once, for the 12th iteration in 1969. Then, as now, the festival took place at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, which was also the site of the memorable Monterey Pop festival two years earlier. Since 1983, the festival has expanded to include venues throughout the fairgrounds property, but back then the entire event took place in the relatively intimate fairgrounds arena. Seating has always been reserved in the Arena (capacity 5850) and, not unlike the venue of a popular sports team, prime seats, particularly those on the elevated stands on either side of the stage, are kept by patrons year after year.  However, back in 1969, my family and I were able to get fairly good floor seats in advance for the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon shows.

Starting in 1966, the Monterey Jazz Festival had experimented with adding rock acts to their lineup, with Paul Butterfield’s very electric blues band added to the traditional Saturday afternoon blues show. At the next year’s festival, Big Brother and the Holding Company, who had become stars at the same venue a few months earlier during the Monterey Pop Festival, played the Saturday blues show. After a 1968 festival with no real rock based acts, the festival moved significantly in the direction of popular music for 1969, including such pure rock acts as Sly and the Family Stone and Lighthouse as well as jazz artists such as Tony Williams and Miles Davis who had wholeheartedly embraced electric jazz fusion.

The Monterey Fairgrounds is a large facility not too far from the center of the relatively small seaside community of Monterey. After a seafood dinner, we got there in plenty of time to see the evening’s opening act, a quintet co-led by vibraphonist Red Norvo and clarinet player Peanuts Hucko. Individually and collectively, the group’s leaders had worked in big bands, backed up Billy Holiday, and worked in a variety of small postwar ensembles. Their short set certainly swung, but my teenage mind was more fixated on the rock-based acts to come later in the evening.
Modern Jazz Quartet 9/19/69
Photo: M. Parrish

The Modern Jazz Quartet had already been together for 17 years when they played the Monterey Festival for the seventh time after the Norvo-Hucko set. At the time, the quartet, comprising vibraphonist Milt Jackson, pianist John Lewis, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Connie Kay, had the unlikely distinction of being the only jazz act on the Beatles’ Apple label, for which they recorded two albums. Despite that rock connection, the MJQ’s music was very much classy, elegant acoustic jazz, delivered with precision and style. Unfortunately, I was too unschooled in the MJQ’s repertoire to have a concept of the set list, but did have the pleasure of hearing two of the leading vibe players in jazz to begin the evening.

Although Miles Davis had dramatically blended rock elements into jazz, as opposed to groups like Blood Sweat and Tears or the Sons bringing some jazz sensibilities and instruments into rock, Davis had yet to realize the full potential of electric instrumentation to his ensembles by the fall of 1969. He used electric instruments to great effect on the meditative In a Silent Way, but the pathway into the snarling loud fusion of Bitches Brew was led by one of Davis’ most distinguished alumni, drum prodigy Tony Williams.  After leaving Davis, Williams assembled the Tony Williams Lifetime, bringing together organist Larry Young and British guitarist John McLaughlin. Williams’ dynamic, polyrhythmic style had been a hallmark of Davis’ bands since he joined him in 1962 at the age of 17. However, he clearly had a louder, denser goal in mind, and had an inspired notion of bringing together two  other very different and gifted young musicians to assemble his dream power trio.

Tony Williams Lifetime 9/19/69
Photo: M. Parrish
The original trio version of Lifetime made a very dramatic initial statement with Emergency!  An adventurous (and loud) double album that came out during the summer of 1969 and received an undue amount of airplay in my bedroom in the next several months. Lifetime was grounded by Young’s organ, with both Williams and McLaughlin soloing furiously around him in different eccentric orbits. Their power trio approach was closer to Cream than to any other jazz trios of the day, and they really laid the groundwork for Bitches Brew (for which Miles enlisted both McLaughlin and Young) and, by extension, the entire jazz fusion movement to come. If there was a weak link in their approach, it was William’s attempts as a lead vocalist and lyricist,  although “Via the Spectrum Road” has an off-kilter charm,  with the band sounding sort of like a loopy, fusion version of Traffic.

Tony Williams Lifetime 9/19/69
Photo: M. Parrish
As compelling as Lifetime was on record, they were even more exciting live. Williams was certainly the visual focus, all of his limbs in constant furious motion as he bent over his kit. McLaughlin, bent studiously over his fretboard, was a study in concentration with only his flying fingers giving visual evidence of the maelstrom of music coming out of his amplifier. Emergency had not been well received by critics in the jazz world, and the audience that evening was clearly divided between rock fans who relished the band’s wall of sound and the large, more conservative contingent that clearly did not appreciate them.  It was a sign of the times that I was able to walk up to the front of the stage to take photos from a vantage point that is only possible today with press credentials.

Sly and the Family Stone 9/19/69
Photo: M. Parrish
The headliner for Friday evening was Sly and the Family Stone. Although their landmark Woodstock performance had taken place a month earlier, it had not yet lent them the mass popularity that arose when the Woodstock movie came out the following year. They were simply a very popular Bay Area band with a stack of hit singles, including anthems like “Stand” and “Everyday People” that called for the kind of racial harmony that the Monterey festival both celebrated and epitomized. Unfortunately, that message was diluted that evening  as the crowd grew restless when the band’s late evening appearance was  delayed for a half hour while a search was undertaken for the stool that Stone used to sit at his organ. By the time they got underway in earnest,  the band delivered a performance that was every bit as mesmerizing as their Woodstock set, except to about 295,000 fewer people. I don’t recall when it ended, but it was a very long evening.

Sons of Champlin 9/20/69
Photo: M. Parrish
The weather  in Monterey can be unpredictable, but the Saturday afternoon blues show opened to beautiful, hot, sunny weather.  The bright daylight showed the crowd’s finery off and, as another sign of the times, a few audience members dispensed with many if not all of their clothes, much to the amusement and/or consternation of the more conservative  members of the crowd.  The opening act was supposed to be veteran pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith, but the always reliable Sons of Champlin were called in as a last minute replacement.  The Sons played a strong set that consisted largely of the extended material from their second album, the cover of which announced “The Sons of Champlin have changed their name to THE SONS.” Shaggy and freaky as the Sons were at the time, their music resonated with the audience thanks to their artful introduction of horns, Geoff Palmer’s vibes, and guitarist Terry Haggerty’s jazz scales and chord progressions.

Two acts, Roberta Flack and the Canadian horn-heavy rock band Lighthouse, played two sets each during the afternoon. Flack, who became best known as a ballad singer later in her career, gave feisty, energetic performances climaxed by her dynamic version of Eddie Harris’ “Compared to What,” which became an anthem of the era thanks to Les McCann’s masterful performance of the the tune on the McCann/Harris live album Swiss Movement.  However, Flack, who was brought to Atlantic Records by McCann, recorded the first version of the tune for her debut album,  First Take, which came out during the summer of 1969.

Buddy Guy Blues Band 9/20/69
Photo: M. Parrish
Although the afternoon’s set was concentrated more on rock than its traditional blues orientation, the crowd was treated to a typically over-the-top performance by one of Chicago’s best, Buddy Guy. Still near the beginning of his career, Guy relied much more on his instrumental dexterity and vocal firepower than he would in later decades. Fronting a quintet without his frequent collaborator Junior Wells, Guy pretty much stole the afternoon’s show with his dazzling fretwork and frenetic body language.  In subsequent years, Guy’s performances have sometimes been hit-and-miss, but he remains one of the genre’s premier showmen, vocalists,  and instrumentalists.

Lighthouse was a popular group from Toronto who had also released their debut album the previous summer.  Led by drummer Skip Prokop, the group was one of the largest of the era with 13 members including the usual rock instrumentation along integrated with full horn and string sections. The group was riding high following a successful major label debut and a landmark performance at Carnegie Hall the previous May, and their big, pop-oriented sound earned them the headlining slot for the afternoon. The blend of instrumentation was certainly interesting, and the highlight of their set was the group’s swirling, extended adaptation of “Eight Miles High.” Lighthouse went on to become one of Canada’s most enduring and popular bands. After breaking up in 1976, the group had one temporary reunion in 1982, and then reunited on a more permanent basis in 1992, and continue to tour today mostly in Ontario.
Lighthouse 9/20/69
Photo: M. Parrish

In retrospect, I have no idea why we did not stay for the Saturday evening concert, which featured Miles Davis’ ‘lost quintet’ (sax player Wayne Shorter, bassist Dave Holland, keyboardist Chick Corea and drummer Jack DeJohnette) along with the groups of Thelonious Monk and Joe Williams. Maybe we were unable to get tickets. As it turned out, I never did get the opportunity to see Monk, although I would get to see Miles during one of his career peaks a few months later in San Francisco.

After some of the cultural and artistic divides that arose during the 1969 festival’s experiments to blend jazz and rock acts, the Monterey festival returned to an all jazz format from 1970 to the present. This proved to be the last Monterey Jazz Festival I would see until 2006. As fabulous as the lineups can be for this festival, it remains somewhat of a challenge for the devoted listener, as the scene in the arena has seemed to me as much about being seen, partying, and talking with friends as it has been about listening to the performers, and those early fall evenings outdoors can be bitterly cold as the fog rolls in. Some of these issues were alleviated in the 1980s, when several smaller venues on the grounds began hosting concerts as well, but the end result was still bigger crowds and, because the bulk of the attendees did not have seats in the arena, getting into the smaller shows requires a combination of intrepid planning and luck.  However,  as an enduring celebration of one of America’s most important art forms, the Monterey Festival has few, if any peers.