@ Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel – 26 concerts plus rare films and panel discussions
For the Fall edition of the bi-annual jazz LAJI weekends (Fall and Spring), festival director, Ken Poston, decided this festival’s focus was to be the music and arrangements of West Coast (1950s) jazz masters.
“Modern Sounds” featured more concerts over the weekend than on any prior festival. The bands were led by band leaders who largely reside in the greater Los Angeles area. Russ Garcia, who lives now in New Zealand, was unable to attend due to health reasons. The festival’s premier band leaders – Gerald Wilson, Bill Holman, Terry Gibbs, Johnny Mandel, and Lanny Morgan have made Los Angeles their home base for years. Their band members, as pointed out in this review, are the cream of the crop of local talent, who make their living in LA.
As an incentive, Poston offered a Wednesday night bus tour to sites of former recording studios in the Los Angeles area, as well as a concert at the famous Jazz Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. The Lighthouse is still operating but not relying on a strictly West Coast jazz format. (Unfortunately, I was unable to attend Wednesday evening’s festivities as they were limited to only 100 people and sold out well in advance.
Along with panel discussions and rare films offered during the day (and a daily lunch concert by the pool ), the evening’s theme concerts were dedicated to Shorty Rogers on Thursday night; Gerry Mulligan on Friday night; Jazz Goes to Hollywood (West Coast jazz used for film scores in the 1950s) on Saturday night; and an evening with jazz masters Bill Holman and Gerald Wilson’s big bands on Sunday night.
The Los Angeles Jazz Institute’s weekend festivals are unique in that they celebrate the heyday of West Coast jazz, that being largely the decade of the 1950s into the early ’60s, when many East Coast bands and individuals came out to Los Angeles to experience the balmy LA weather and the cool relaxed scene. Many stayed for the film, TV, and commercial work that they found in Southern California. Howard Rumsey’s Jazz Lighthouse All-Stars found an adoring following, and its members, including Art Pepper, Bob Cooper, Bud Shank, Bill Perkins, and many others made the cool yet swinging sound the trademark of West Coast jazz. Most present day attendees of Poston directed weekend festivals were either residents of LA or long time devotees of the sound that emanated from LA area. They return each year from all over the country and across the pond from England and Europe.
The fan base for the LAJI weekends is gradually decreasing as the average age of festival guests is at least Medicare-qualified. It will be a challenge for Ken Poston over the next 5-10 years as more and more long time fans deal with health issues or pass on. I overheard on more than one occasion that up to 10% of LAJI members fall off the membership roster from year to year. It is the only jazz festival (I have been coming since 2002) that I attend in which I feel like a youngster.
Highlights of this Fall’s Festival were numerous (as always) and I’ll make mention of the moments that brought me the most pleasure:
The Johnny Richards Big Band set, directed by Joel Kaye, featured Richards’ signature heavily-orchestrated themes with distinctive Latin rhythms and the use of dissonance. Veteran saxophonist, Charles Owens was impressive on “Look Up,” while band members Ron Stout (trumpet), Billy Kerr (alto sax), and Mike Bogart (trumpet) were distinctive as the latter three played in numerous bands over the weekend. “Dimples” and “Waltz Anyone” were memorable treats for me from the Richards set.
There was more than one panel honoring the LA-based Contemporary Records label, and founder Lester Koenig. Contemporary never had the nationwide status of Blue Note and Prestige Records, but their attention to detail, and the quality product they provided to the public was every bit as special as their East Coast counterparts. Koenig’s son was present for the panel’s discussions, and was invaluable in describing his father’s insistence in putting out only the best LA sessions. The label’s sound engineer, Roy DuNann, came down south for a Sunday panel, where he was given his due by Bernie Grundman, as being a genius, who could reproduce sound sessions unmatched today for fidelity and acoustics using minimal miking in less than ideal studio settings. Listening to snippets from Art Pepper and The Rhythm Section as well as Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West confirmed DuNann as setting the standard as a sound engineer.
The inimitable Bobby Shew led an ensemble in playing Jack Montrose’s arrangements of Chet Baker and Clifford Brown compositions. The tunes were three-minute cool and swinging catchy melodies, and included Brownie classics like “Joy Spring” and “Daahoud,” as well as “Tiny Capers” and “Finders Keepers.” The charts were provided by Montrose’s widow.
Friday evening’s festivities were a total gas, as the evening was dedicated to Gerry Mulligan both in a smaller Songbook setting, as well as Gerry’s Tentet material (played by some of the best LA talent), and directed by Bill Holman – so you know the arrangements were tight. Jennifer Hall played all the original Mulligan parts. The night closed with an all-star big band, featuring Stan Kenton alumni, playing big band charts of Jeru.
Saturday brought a fascinating panel on Sleepy Stein and the birth of jazz radio on radio station KNOB, complete with period station jingles. Ace trumpeter, Carl Saunders next led a poolside octet playing Don Fagerquist compositions. Fagerquist was a trumpet soloist with Gene Krupa, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman’s Third Herd. He passed away well before his 50th birthday.
Duane Tatro came out to lead his Jazz for Moderns, an album written for top West Coast talent, including Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Gordon, Bill Holman, Joe Maini, Shelly Manne, and Lennie Niehaus. For lack of a better description, I would describe the album as chamber jazz meeting film noir, complete with dissonance.
Ken Poston next led a panel discussion on the influence of West Coast jazz on the animators of UPA, a group of ex-Disney artists, who included jazz in music for cartoons and commercials. Their work included noted cartoons of Gerald McBoing-Boing and Mr. Magoo. Their use of limited animation was a stylistic alternative to Disney’s cinematic realism.
On Saturday afternoon Lanny Morgan led an octet that covered cool-toned saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre, which featured a 1959 album of Sonny Stittt playing Giuffre arrangements. Noteworthy were “Sonny Boy,” “Laura” and “New York City Blues,” which had a great trombone solo by Andrew Lippman.
Saturday night was a crowd pleaser as it featured the legendary composer and arranger Johnny Mandel, leading a big band, doing crowd favorites like “Emily”, “The Shadow of Your Smile”, The theme from MASH, as well as music from Susan Hayward’s movie, I Want to Live. Mandel’s reception from the elderly audience was rapturous as his compositional songbook is rivaled by no living composer, and to hear his work live by a dream big band of top notch LA talent brought goose bumps of emotion.
Following Mandel were great Shorty Rogers’ arrangements led by Fred Selden of the Marlon Brando classic, but now campy film, The Wild One. In between swinging themes from the movie, riotously jazz lingo scenes from the Brando movie with clean cut motorcycle gangs spouting hipster dialogue couldn’t help but bring forth chuckles.
Sunday afternoon and evening memories were made by a panel with 93 year old legend Gerald Wilson; followed by David Paich, from Toto fame, leading his father Marty’s arrangements from I Get a Boot Out of You. An added touch was provided Mel Torme’s son, Jamie, vocalizing on three tunes at the end of the set. From father to son…
Sunday night brought an Evening with the Masters: Bill Holman and Gerald Wilson’s Big Bands. Holman’s set had arrangements of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” as well as Holman staples, “Sweet Spot,” “Just Friends,” and “Bari Me Not,” a feature for Bob Efford, on the big horn.
Wilson’s big band brought rousing versions of “Blues for the Count” (Basie), bluesy renditions showing Gerald’s fascination with Stravinsky, and Debussy, with familiar melodies blending with big band blow-out power. Gerald showed off family members, son, guitarist, Anthony, and grandson, Eric Otis, who led the band in his own new composition (from Gerald’s latest CD), “September Sky” that was simply sublime.
Ken Poston and the Los Angeles Jazz Institute is already planning next years’ Spring 2012 Jazz Festival – Music for Moderns (Big Bands of the Atomic Age). It will focus on the post-war period that brought the birth of be-bop and progressive jazz. Music will range from Stan Kenton to Dizzy Gillespie to Woody Herman, adding in Charlie Ventura, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Tadd Dameron. It will feature 20 big bands. Poston is already looking to the future taking off from LA, and heading across the country. As jazz lingo goes, “Be There or Be Square….”
—Review by Jeff Krow —Photos by Jim Bourne