In 1958, jazz promoter Jimmy Lyons worked with legendary San Francisco music writer Ralph J. Gleason to organize a jazz festival, the first of its kind on the West Coast. Gleason and Lyons (not to be confused with the late free-jazz alto saxophonist) chose the picturesque town of Monterey for the setting, and within a few years the Monterey Jazz Festival was one of the premier jazz festivals in the world. Its success inspired 1967's landmark Monterey International Pop Festival, which featured an exciting cross-section of popular and cutting-edge performers, from Buffalo Springfield to the Who to Ravi Shankar, bringing mainstream focus to the Summer of Love.
While the very first Monterey Jazz Festival was heavy on traditional (i.e., New Orleans-based) artists, subsequent fêtes displayed a spectrum of development from the old guard (Louis Armstrong) to the avant-garde (rebels like Ornette Coleman). Tim Jackson, one of Monterey Jazz's present-day managers, says, "The Festival has a rich history of presenting eclectic collaborations and commissioning new pieces while making forays into blues, Latin jazz, and world music." More importantly, it invests in the future — proceeds from the showcase have funded jazz education programs throughout the U.S., including scholarships for young musicians to attend the Berklee College of Music.
Now there's yet another first associated with Monterey. The newly launched label Monterey Jazz Festival Records specializes in previously unreleased live performances from the event's history. For jazz fans, it's a mother of a treasure trove, and for neophytes, it's a way to sample the oeuvres of the old masters, the stars, and the innovators, in that invaluable without-a-net live context (with fine recording quality, no less).
The first five releases, out this month, chronicle performances by some of the biggest names ever, in terms of both fame and artistic importance. They span decades and generations, with each volume dedicated to an entire performance: Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Sarah Vaughan. Perhaps the first jazz soloist of note, Armstrong was also the most famous and enduring jazz star. While he peaked creatively in the '30s and '40s, Armstrong's 1958 performance of conventional standards is nonetheless spirited fun, his trumpet full of that sweet crackle — his ecstatic, talking-in-tongues wailing on "Tiger Rag" will give free-jazz brass players nightmares.
In 1963, Miles Davis was a star at the precipice of making major waves. His band was most of the world-shaking unit it would become: Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums; and George Coleman, tenor sax (soon to be replaced by the edgier Wayne Shorter). This would be one of the last times the world would experience the "old," lyrical Miles and emotive gems like "Stella by Starlight."
By 1964, Monk had become a star. His picture was on the cover of Time; he was signed to a major label, Columbia; and he'd reaped both critical and measurable commercial popularity. Monk's volume includes two major departures: Steve Swallow (soon to rise to fame with Gary Burton) sat in for regular bassist John Ore, and two selections feature a small horn section whose inspired playing allows the usually cool and collected Monk Quartet to kick it up a notch, recalling the rambunctious aspects of Charles Mingus' large-group rave-ups.
Forthcoming volumes will showcase contemporary players Pat Metheny, Chris Potter, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. As for the label's maiden voyage, these platters are of historic import, but are not staid museum exhibitions. This music was great then and it will influence sounds in the future, long after flavors of the day are forgotten.