JazzAge Monterey: Let the Good Times Roll–Part One

At the close of the last Bill’s Blog post, I mentioned a local (Monterey, California) event that will take place on March 6-8 in, as advertised: “The ballrooms and cabarets of the Portola Hotel & Spa and the Monterey Conference Center.” I said I hoped to present (in three parts or posts) the full history of this event, which began in 1980 as “Fairgrounds Dixieland” and was then allowed to “spill over into downtown Monterey” and eventually became—over a span of thirty-five years—what it is now: JazzAge Monterey’s “Jazz Bash by the Bay.”

JAM 2013 program cover    JAM 2014 program cover

These are the event’s program covers from 2013 and 2014 (both handsomely conceived and executed by artist Will Bullas):

In past posts, I have written about three exceptional performers who have graced the Portola Hotel “stages” over the past two years (two of whom will return this March): Argentine guitarist Gonzalo Bergara, with his quartet; vocalist Rebecca Kilgore, with her trio (trombonist Dan Barrett; pianist Paolo Alderighi); and the amazing stride pianist Stephanie Trick, with her trio (Phil Flanigan, bass; Danny Coots, drums). Both Rebecca Kilgore and Stephanie Trick will be back for this year’s Jazz Bash by the Bay. The music just keeps getting better and better—so let’s see how this event and my interest in writing about it got off the ground thirty-five years ago.

Here is the brochure that was sent out to acquaint folks with this year’s fare—and photos of Gonzalo Bergara, Rebecca Kilgore with her trio, and Stephanie Trick with hers:

JAM 2015 brochure   Gonzalo Bergara   Rebecca Kilgore Trio

Stepjeny Trick Trio

In 1985, I started writing about a subject I’d been “playing” all my life (Music! I took up drums and piano at age fourteen, and had my own dance “orchestra”—actually a six-piece combo with two vocalists—at age sixteen, just outside of Detroit), but I had always kept music “separate” and never devoted words to it (other than to sing them!)—whereas I was writing poetry, short stories, and even a first or “practice” (and abortive) novel at the time. My wife and I attended a performance by the Bill Berry Big Band at Douglas Beach House (The Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society) in Half Moon Bay, accompanied by our friends Dick and Sarah Maxwell. Sarah was an excellent visual artist and, watching her “quick sketch” the various players, I thought, “Why can’t I do that with words?” The rich tone of a tenor saxophone had the “feel” of velour to me, or I heard a trumpet “sluicing through the soft sax sound.” Saxophonist Marshall Royal wore “a yachting cap, a la Count Basie, and [had] the face of a seasoned pit bull … examining a fresh reed as if it were the Hope Diamond,” et cetera. I was off and running … or writing (about jazz), and I have never stopped.

Monterey had a rich jazz “scene” at the time, and the Herald Weekend Magazine took a piece I came up with (“A Jam Session at the Seashore”) for a May 1985 issue; West (the San Jose Mercury Sunday supplement published a shorter version of the same in August), and I had my first article published nationally in DownBeat, July 1987 (“Remembering Buddy,” about drummer Buddy Rich and an appearance by him with his Big Band in Monterey). George Fuller, who, in 1986, published a chapbook of my poems as Poet Santa Cruz: Number 4 in his Jazz Press series, was editor of Monterey Life magazine and, having seen a couple of the jazz pieces I’d written, asked me for an article on Dixieland Monterey, then in its sixth year of activity. I wrote an article with the subtitle “Let the Good Times Roll,” and it appeared in Monterey Life in February 1987.

When I thought, recently, of covering or describing the first six years of Dixieland Monterey, I felt I might use that article as a basis or “notes” for the blog post, but re-reading the piece, I will have to say (devoid of any modesty whatsoever) that it seems to capture the mood, the tone, the “feel” of the event’s early years quite well, so I am going to reproduce it here with very few “corrections” or amendations. Some place names (venues) and “personnel” (both no longer with us) may not be instantly recognizable, but I’m going to leave things as they were rather than provide tempo-impeding “footnotes,” and present what I wrote about as if it were taking place right now (all history is synchronistic, occurring simultaneously, anyway—right?), alive and well, in order to retain the excitement and “color” of what occurred then. Here, then, are the first six years of Dixieland Monterey … Let the Good Times roll!

And in order to allow that to happen (at the max!), I’m going to illustrate this post with some of the “quick sketch” material that Sarah Maxwell provided to accompany articles I wrote. My editor at Herald Weekend Magazine had some reservations regarding my prose style (“What’do you think this is, The New Yorker?” he’d say by way of complaint; “And who do you think you are: William Faulkner?”), but he loved Sarah’s drawings, unconditionally, and may have accepted or tolerated what I wrote by default, just so he could print her superb art work. So I will “lace” what follows with Sarah’s great “stuff.”

At the end of this month (in 1987) Hot Jazz descends on Monterey with a happy vengeance: three nights and two days (February 27, 28; March 1) of music provided by over twenty bands at locations ranging from the Franklin Street Bar & Grill to Jack Swan’s First Theatre–all within walking distance of one another. The occasion is the 6th annual Dixieland Monterey festival, one of the most successful of its type in the state.

Dixieland Monterey3

You’ll find groups with quaint names such as Stumptown, Professor Plum’s and the Hot Frogs Jumping Jazz Band. You’ll witness every novelty effect from a Bud Lite trumpet mute (or red ceramic lady’s slipper) to a chicken solo (a rubber fowl squeezed in time to “Everybody Loves My Baby”). Stroll, trip or race from club to club in pace with a crowd that knows exactly why it’s in town: the proprietors of nearly ten bistros opening their doors only to ardent fans wearing hardball size Dixieland Monterey badges.

Bands may seem to be posted on a chart just a little less complicated than an NFL playoff schedule, but no, in actuality each is listed clearly by specific day, time and place (Fulton Street Jazz Band, Saturday, 1:30, Red Snapper, etc.–this from the 1986 schedule). Half the fun of this affair, for the crowd, is moving from place to place. If you play your scorecard right, you’ll have grand days and nights, and hear some fine good time music.

The festival, a spin-off from the active local Hot Jazz Society, started six years ago when fans attending the popular Sacramento fete decided the thing could be done just as well, if not better, at home. Joe Ingram approached local ad men/musicians Ed Greco and John Keller, and the three decided to allow a Fairgrounds Dixieland occasion “to spill over into downtown Monterey,” half of twelve bands playing Patee Arena, the other half in clubs in the metropolitan area. About 800 badges were sold for the latter and, while the plan didn’t make money, it didn’t lose any either.

The next year the festival “got serious.” The Hot Jazz Society was tapped for “manpower” (they still provide the major portion of the 250-300 volunteers who donate their services to the efficiently run affair), a Board of Directors was set up and, following a study of the best features of the many Dixieland festivals throughout the state, Dixieland Monterey was off and rolling–or swinging. Actually it did roll, kicked off that second year by a truly in-house band (Ingram, Greco, Keller and Mike Marotta) jamming aboard a flatbed truck following Clydesdale horses–the beginnings of what has since turned out to be “the biggest parade the city of Monterey has.”

Dixieland Monterey5     Dixieland Monterey

Keller says the current festival steering group of six people has stuck to its trust to (1) keep the event “as intimate as we can, within walking distance of itself,” (2) to present “the best live performance Dixieland our dollar can afford,” and (3) control growth so the event “has a chance to maintain its integrity.” The sale of 500 more badges is permitted each year, with an anticipated 2500 to be distributed in 1987.

Ironically, this flourishing six year old enterprise–a non-profit volunteer staffed organization (extra money goes into scholarships)–has no central office, but Keller admits that “pretty soon we’ll have to get serious about this.”

When the festival started, cabaret owners seemed understandably timid about turning away their steady customers and restricting trade to Dixieland Monterey badge holders, but not for long. This “lovely” crowd provoked $10,000 a day bar sales, and “all of a sudden everyone became believers,” guaranteeing the success of what Keller calls “the classiest Dixieland festival in California.”

Lovely or not, the crowd is nearly evangelical (there’s even a Sunday morning service in the DeAnza room of the host hotel, the Doubletree–the needs of the faithful served last year by the Nightblooming Jazzmen) in its enthusiasm for this music. They are people well acquainted with the range of Dixieland festivals from Pomona to Oregon, and cruises with names such as “Jazzsea” and “Dixsea” which will transport you, along with your favorite bands, to far away places like St. Thomas and Barbados.

Here, at Dixieland Monterey, you are likely to bump into every sort of devotee, from expert flapper dancers with marathon appetites to a colorful parasol brigade to groupies equipped with “Nightmares,” black spandex jackets, or what playwright Tom Stoppard has decried as “No philosophy that can’t be printed on a T-shirt” (some a bit too salty for a family magazine). It’s a happy, dedicated crowd, a condition that Keller attributes to the fact that the music is “highly danceable, bright and light,” containing a terpsichorean complement not found in most jazz today (“with rare exceptions”), the music providing a sense of continuity (from New Orleans through Chicago style to Swing), “remaining relatively true to its instrumentation and sound.”

Bob Gay–a knowledgeable non-musician, a broker in real life–is in charge of selecting the bands, the top ten of which are predictable favorites from previous years. The others are “new faces” with proven ability to draw crowds at other festivals. Last year pianist Norma Teagarden, of the famous jazz family, donated her services, and one is likely to hear some high class solo performers such as cornetist Jackie Coon, reed men Jeff Walker and Tony Pagano (the latter on a gold soprano sax) and pianist Bob Hirsch–just to name a few–astride the tight ensemble work of their respective groups: Jake Stock’s Abalone Stompers, Conrad Janis & the Beverly Hills Unlisted Jazz Band, Mike Vax & the Great American Jazz Band (Vax himself, on trumpet, a Stan Kenton alumnus) and the excellent Fulton Street Jazz Band from Sacramento. You’ll find hot vocalists such as Chris Norris (Golden Eagle) and Jan Sutherland (Custer’s Last Band). This year, also, the popular Royal Society Jazz Orchestra will return.

Here’s Sarah Maxwell’s sketch of Mike Vax & the Great American Jazz Band:

Dixieland Monterey6

The groups aren’t here to make money (by the time trip and lodging are paid they just about break even), but they obviously love the music they play. There’s much, along with the groups already mentioned, to choose from: from High Sierra to South Frisco to Tuleburg, Bye Bye Blues and the Grand Dominion Jazz Band.

Jazz critic Len Lyons, whose catholicity of taste runs the gamut from Ragtime through Fusion to Free Jazz, decries what he calls the “ossified style” of Dixieland (“There was nothing original about the Original Dixieland Jass Band save for their overnight commercial success”), but if there’s any merit to what he says, the crowd that will pour into Monterey on the last weekend of this month doesn’t know it yet, and probably wouldn’t care if they did. They are not youthful, these fans (aside from their aspirations), but you won’t witness much ossification.

Cash registers shall be ringing, yes, but as you wander the range of cabarets from the Cuckoo’s Nest to Tony’s American Grill & Bar, from Red Snapper and the Wharfside to the Doubletree’s Bonsai Room and the Sheraton Hotel, you’ll probably discover lots of overt joy: legitimate delight in, and solid appreciation of, sounds that stem from New Orleans-style playing (which Lyons does regard as full of the color of life, “effervescent, even lusty”).

It’s music with the blues touch, lively extemporaneous composition or improvising within tight harmonies, stopped time and the instrumental color of insolent trumpets, clarinets that weave and stitch, and a genuine “rhythm” section of steady danceable piano, bass and drums. You’ll also find some silly hats, chicken solos, barnyard braying and flatulent trombones, but for the most part it’s agreed-upon fun: this crowd comes to town for what they love, which is good time music.

Dixieland Monterey4

That covers the event’s first six years, I hope—and in the next post, I’ll take you from 1987 through a host of fine performances that will land us in 2014, when Dixieland Monterey, hoping to widen its horizons, to attract a wider age range of fans, to make Jazz Bash by the Bay get “better” (and better), to allow it to represent truly “the heart and soul of the great Jazz Age” as well as the rich Trad heritage, took on a new name: JazzAge Monterey.

I had my favorites throughout those “middle” years, and I won’t be shy about praising them: The Fulton Street Band from Sacramento; local treasures (local heroes!) Jackie Coon, “Fast Eddie” Erickson, and Bob Phillips; Bo Grumpus (with the miraculous Craig Ventresco on guitar); Blue Street from Fresno (with Dave Ruffner and Sherri Colby’s handsome vocal duet on “Rose of Washington Square” still alive in my ears, along with Bob Embry’s viola on “Ashokan Farewell”); outstanding pianists such as John Sheridan, Jason Wanner, Chris Calabrese, Andrew Fielding, and Johnny Varro (returning this year!); drummer Jake Hanna; clarinetists Allan Vache, Bob Draga, and Abe Most; the remarkable (ageless) Edna Lewis; and a veritable plethora of excellent groups from Igor’s Jazz Cowboys, the Natural Gas Jazz Band, to the (ageless also!) Royal Society Jazz Orchestra (also comin’ back this year!).

Stay tuned for more Good Times!

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Author: William Minor

I am a writer and musician who has published thirteen books: most recent Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958; also Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems; The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, a comic novel (Trek: Lips. Sunny, Pecker and Me); three books on jazz (most recent: Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within), and six other books of poetry. A professional musician since the age of sixteen, I have released three CDs (most recent: Love Letters of Lynchburg--spoken word and original musical score commissioned by the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia). I was educated at The University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, The University of Hawaii, UC-Berkeley (MFA in Painting and Drawing), and San Francisco State College (MA in Language Arts). I taught for thirty-two years (English, Creative Writing, Humanities) at The University of Hawaii, Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, and Monterey Peninsula College). Originally trained as a visual artist, I have exhibited woodcut prints and paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution. I have been married to Betty for sixty years and we have two grown sons: Timothy and Stephen. We live in Pacific Grove, California where, retired from teaching, I just write and play music, both of which I love.

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