Last weekend Monterey hit a milestone: 60 years of hosting one of the most exciting musical events worldwide, known and hailed internationally as the Monterey Jazz Fest. And they didn’t hold back for this special anniversary: topping the lineup with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, all three days of the festival were jam-packed with acts such as the Roy Hargrove Quintet, Kenny Barron, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Common, Joshua Redman, Pedrito Martinez, all three of the Claytons (John, Jeff, and Gerald), Joe Lovano, Regina Carter, Branford Marsalis, and Jimmy Heath (you know, to name a few). Not only was this year’s fest particularly star-studded, but it also included a diverse spread of genres while keeping the focus centered around jazz; this acceptance of branching genres such as hip hop, rock, and blues is a recurrent theme in MJF’s history that I’ll dive into further on.
Monterey being within eyesight of my home turf in Santa Cruz, I had the honor of performing at this festival with the UCSC Jazz Combo. Taking the Thelonious Monk Education Stage at 12:30pm on Saturday, we opened the afternoon with a setlist from the European Real Book:
“Vista,” “Distant Biscuits, “Secret Champ,” “Home,” “Ups and Downs,” and “Sixteen Blues.” Mad props to Galen Savidge, Gabe Meacham, Keshav Batish, Evan O’Brien, and Ben Sitzer – your hard work and musicianship shined through, and it was a pleasure to play with you.
I could write pages for each act I attended, but I’m going to focus on three: Common, the Roy Hargrove Quintet, and Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Not only were these three performances the most enthralling to me, but taken together they formed a convincing statement on jazz’s future, present, and past (yes, like the Ghosts of Christmas).
Seeing Common’s name on the lineup probably caused a lot of double-takes, especially from seasoned jazz fans. Born out of the South Side, Chicago, the Grammy Award-winning rapper is one of the most respected hip hop artists living – but what was he doing at a jazz festival? Several answers come to mind: first and foremost, that hip hop’s musical language comes from the same place as swing and bebop. Both heavily make use of the backbeat, which originated in West Africa, and both feature improvisation – jazz with instrumental solos, and hip hop with rap freestyling and disc scratching. Common underscored this point by appearing with a full band of accomplished jazz musicians and frequently giving them the mic (flautist Elena Pinderhughes was one of the musicians on stage – a welcome surprise, as she wasn’t listed on the program but commanded a set at MJF last year).
Equally as important, though, is to acknowledge that hip hop is coming out of the same culture as jazz – namely, black urban communities in America. Both are historically tied to black oppression, and as a result both respond to similar problems, rearticulated for different eras. Common’s set, for example, was called “Black America Again,” and all his songs discussed some problem he saw with the way people of color are treated in the United States. His lyrics echoed the words of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and countless others, who critically discussed black experience and expressed it in their music. Though MJF kept the spotlight on jazz, having such an authority embrace rap signaled an acceptance of hip hop into the jazz family tree, the way MJF has done with blues, bluegrass, rock, and funk in the past. And one can find that happening with more established jazz musicians, with artists such as Christian Scott, Roy Hargrove, and Takuya Kuroda intentionally seeking to incorporate elements of trap, house, and old-school into their work. This is especially important because hip hop speaks directly to younger generations, while jazz is often criticized for seeming restricted to older demographics. By incorporating the newer genre into its fold, jazz, now a worldwide phenomenon, can retain a link to the same communities it served in the past.
Common performing at the White House with Elena Pinderhughes, Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge, and Keyon Herrold
I thought it was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Herbie Hancock himself was clapping and dancing to the music most of the time.
Roy Hargrove’s combo was a much more traditional set. Having just seen them perform in Paris at the New Morning, I already knew what to expect and was in a better position to offer critique. In Paris they played a diverse array of songs, ranging from soothing ballads to hard bop tunes with a heavy backbeat (my favorite). In Monterey they played the same set, and they danced on stage again, and Justin Robinson was an absolute beast on the saxophone, again, but something about this performance was much more lively. I’m not sure if it was higher energy in the quintet or a heightened engagement in the crowd, but their show in Dizzy’s Den on Saturday night was electric. They had the audience clapping and cheering for several songs, and you could hear the more experienced audience members whispering, “He just referenced Joe Henderson!” and “Did you catch how he modulated right there?” The show had something for everyone: masterful soloing navigating complex rhythms and harmonies for experts to chew on, exciting tunes and danceable grooves for newbies, and traditional combo-style playing for those who attended a jazz festival expecting a classic jazz performance.
I found Roy Hargrove backstage after the show and asked him to sign my t-shirt; I am now the proud owner of a shirt that has my combo’s name screen-printed along with the “Roy Hargrove Quintet” and topped with a signature from the man himself. The deepest, music-nerdiest part of myself is thrilled.
Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock capped off the festival late Sunday night in the Arena. The show didn’t start until close to 10pm, and while we waited I had a conversation with a woman who had been coming to the festival for 40 years. I found out her grandkids had played in a band with Elena and Samora Pinderhughes in junior high; small world. I asked her how this year compared to previous years, and she said the 60th has definitely been one of the best. I’ve only been coming for two years – but I’d have to agree.
When the red curtain finally parted, we saw two full open-topped grand pianos locked together, like a musical yin and yang symbol. Chick and Herbie walked out on stage, the former dressed in white, the latter in black. They sat down and began to play. At first it sounded almost classical, like a modern piano-four hands piece, but soon they were evolving outward, opening into denser harmonies and rhythms and departing the classical sense of structure. And between the two of them they created a galaxy of sound; at times they cleanly came together for rehearsed motifs, and at others there was obvious call and response, but the majority of their playing melded concrete music and uninhibited improvisation so fluidly that it rarely seemed that they were separate at all. Each song evolved as naturally as a good conversation, spoken fluently and filled with epiphanies and fascinating ideas.
This is something I strive for as a musician: a sense of ease in communicating through sound, in any genre. After all, at its most basic level, music really is another language. This is an old idea, and Hancock and Corea are two of the most venerated musicians still alive from jazz’s youth, but somehow this set sounded very fresh, flexible, and even futuristic. They managed to connect with the crowd on standards – Hancock’s “Chameleon” and Corea’s “Aranjuez/Spain,” two absolute classics – while introducing sounds that for all the world approached the most dissonant, complex ideas found in modern classical piano playing.
For a taste of what that set was like, check out this video of the duo performing a similar set in 1978 – under different fashion norms. Or this one from 1979, at the North Sea Jazz Festival (we’ve got the full recording of that festival over on the Jazz Archive).
I came away from MJF’s 60th festival fully convinced of jazz’s ability to be flexible, adaptable, yet still firmly rooted in an era when music seems to be increasingly hybridized and sometimes nebulous. And, of course, a strong motivation to get back to practicing.