by Scott Yanow
Since I was out of town for part of the past month and did not see much local jazz, this particular column will be a bit different than usual. Rather than review current jazz artists, I would like to reminisce a bit and remember ten of the most amazing performances that I have been lucky enough to see through the years.
One of the few times in my life when I have felt a bit envious of those older than myself is when I have heard the more enlightened members of the previous generation reminisce about the jazz greats they have seen. Imagine actually seeing Charlie Parker play for a few hours, attending a Jazz At The Philharmonic concert, or experiencing Billie Holiday singing in a club! I’ll never really know what it was like to be in the same room with John Coltrane, Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong. But since I have been writing about jazz since 1975 and have been very aware of jazz since 1970, I have amassed my fair share of memories during the past 45 years and perhaps a few of them will make the next generation a little jealous. Here are ten of the more unique concerts and jazz events that I have experienced, in roughly chronological order.
1) The first major concert that I saw was quite memorable. At the Hollywood Bowl in 1972, I happily sat in the bleachers and spent a long afternoon being amazed by individual sets featuring Cannonball Adderley, the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Stan Getz, the Count Basie Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson solo. The musicians were all in prime form with Peterson taking honors during his incredible set of unaccompanied solos. A decade later I saw Peterson at the Monterey Jazz Festival, also playing solos. What I remember most about that set was the pianist getting a standing ovation after every single song!
2) In San Francisco at the now-legendary Keystone Korner, I saw the unique Rahsaan Roland Kirk perform twice within a week in 1975. Kirk had the ability to make the impossible seem both effortless and logical. He had three horns (tenor, stritch and manzello) wrapped around his neck along with a flute, a clarinet and some whistles. Also within reach were a gong and a music box. He used the music box for background sounds during his rants between songs. Rahsaan not only could play three horns at once and take 20 minute solos full of constant creativity in one breath via circular breathing (so his ideas were nonstop) but he could play in virtually any jazz style. I remember him sounding like Barney Bigard on clarinet during a New Orleans segment. Most amazing was when Kirk (who was blind) went out into the audience and played a saxophone one-handed on the ballad “If I Loved You” while using the other one to shake people’s hands. Recordings and even film clips do not quite do him justice.
3) Dizzy Gillespie was such an advanced trumpeter when he came up in the 1940s that, although his fellow beboppers were influenced by him, they ended up copying Fats Navarro and Miles Davis instead because their styles were easier to figure out. Gillespie continued being very advanced in his choice of notes throughout his career, and it was not until the phenomenal Jon Faddis arrived on the scene in the 1970s that a trumpeter could sound just like Dizzy. Faddis, even by then, had such a remarkable range that he could play Gillespie solos an octave higher than Dizzy. While they made a few recordings together, none really capture the excitement of their occasional live performances in the ’70s. In 1975, I saw Gillespie and Faddis with a quintet at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall and it was like hearing two Dizzys at once.
4) I saw Bobby McFerrin on three particularly memorable occasions. In the late 1980s he appeared all by himself at the Gibson Center near Los Angeles, armed with only a microphone. Because he can keep three different vocal lines going at once, and he even makes a sound when inhaling, McFerrin can perform songs a capella without missing a part or a beat. No one else can sing like that in jazz, which makes his erratic recording career a bit of a disappointment. At the 1987 Monterey Jazz Festival he was part of an extremely unusual group comprised of his vocalized bass lines, Rob McCroby on “puccolo” (whistling), Ray Pizzi on bassoon, Toots Thielemans on harmonica and drummer Eddie Marshall. It all managed to work because McFerrin tied everything together in witty fashion. It was definitely the only time that one could see a frontline of whistling, bassoon and harmonica.
McFerrin was also part of what might have been the greatest set that I ever saw. At the 1985 Playboy Jazz Festival, he teamed up with Jon Hendricks, Janis Siegel and Dianne Reeves (along with a rhythm section) as Sing, Sing, Sing. The four singers (who were joined on two numbers by Tim Hauser of the Manhattan Transfer) had individual features, but when they all scatted together on a few uptempo pieces, it was incredible.
5) The Playboy Jazz Festival has always been basically a party with jazz as opposed to being a jazz party. The partying audience talks through everything no matter the quality, erupting now and then to dance to the funkier groups. One performer who always knew how to grab an audience’s attention was up to the Playboy challenge. At the 1987 festival, Lionel Hampton led a big band full of screaming trumpeters and honking saxophonists, and he did everything he could to hold on to the crowd. He jumped on the drums, played two-fingered piano, sang, did a soft shoe on “Mack The Knife,” and played heated vibes on “In The Mood,” “Hamp’s Boogie Woogie,” “Air Mail Special” and of course “Flying Home.” The Playboy festival, which utilizes a revolving stage so one group can quickly follow the other, never ends late. Hampton was closing the show and refused to stop playing, playing one uptempo number after another to the chagrin of the Playboy staff. Finally after roaring through a heated blues, he walked towards the audience and took bows. Unknown to him, the stage revolved behind him and when he looked back, his band was gone. Lionel Hampton looked forlorn as he sadly shuffled offstage.
6) At Catalina Bar and Grill around 1988, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers played a typically hard-swinging set. During the second set, the club was less than half filled but one of the members of the audiences was George Benson. When Blakey noticed him, he asked him to sit in. Benson did not have his guitar with him but he went on stage anyway and took a long exciting scat solo on “Blues March,” in what might have been the only time he ever performed with the Jazz Messengers.
7) Very few trumpeters have ever been at Freddie Hubbard’s level. Unfortunately physical problems and a reluctance to practice resulted in him permanently ruining his trumpet chops by 1992. In 1990 at Catalina’s, I remember him starting the night with a blazing version of his blues “Byrdlike.” With a rhythm section, Hubbard counted off the tune at a ferocious tempo and took at least 40 choruses full of dazzling ideas, high notes and fireworks. I bet he did not even warm up.
8) Here is one more memory from Catalina’s. In the late 1990s, the great tenor-saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin was scheduled with a quartet that included his wife pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi. Due to a mixup with the Los Angeles Times (which actually used to cover jazz), the opening night was not publicized and there were perhaps a dozen people in the club. That was just as well because the plane taking Akiyoshi and the group’s bassist was delayed and they would not make it into Los Angeles until the next morning. Tabackin, looking at the small but expectant audience, debated for a half-moment about canceling the performance, and then decided to be adventurous. He played a full set of unaccompanied music for an hour, something few other bop-oriented saxophonists would have attempted. Tabackin, mostly on tenor except for one number on flute, performed a Duke Ellington medley, an original or two, and a few standards, never running out of ideas. It all worked and I felt privileged to be one of the very few to see it.
Speaking of unaccompanied tenors, back in 1975 at Berkeley Sonny Rollins performed as the climax of a festival dominated by college big bands. After finishing an outstanding set, he left the stage but the audience would not stop cheering. After more than 20 minutes passed, a very reluctant Rollins came back on stage and explained that the college band had performed all of the music they had worked out. The crowd still would not quiet down or leave, so Rollins improvised a solo piece for ten minutes before the crowd let him go.
9) At the 2006 Monterey Jazz Festival, Dave Brubeck performed his “Cannery Row Suite,” a tribute to John Steinbeck and his novel Cannery Row. Much of the music was written at the last minute but it all came together remarkably well, featuring Kurt Elling, Roberta Gambararini, Threeplay (a trio with bassist-bass trombonist Chris Brubeck and Peter Madcat Ruth on harmonica), several actors, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet. It was heartwarming, Brubeck could not stop smiling, and it was great to hear Elling and Gambarini singing together. The film of this unique event needs to be released.
10) Hiromi is an incredible pianist with limitless technique. As with other performers who have such a high level of technique (Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Arturo Sandoval and James Carter to name four), it is easy to write her off as someone who plays too many notes, but that is just a lazy way of not dealing with a remarkable performer. At a solo concert at the Japan America Theater in Los Angeles in 2010, she tore into the piano, starting “I Got Rhythm” as a ballad before it evolved into a thunderous romp that still sounded like Gershwin in spots. Her “BQE” musically depicted a New York City subway ride and she constructed a three-part Las Vegas suite that included her simulation of a slot machine (“The Gambler”). But in addition to all of the fireworks, Hiromi played ballads with such beauty and emotion that it made one realize that she is truly one of today’s jazz giants. And she did much of this while displaying an impish smile.
Next month I’ll return to current events but it is fun to look back once in awhile.
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