Louis Armstrong and Carmen McRae, 1962.
Photograph by Jerry Stoll
Six decades ago, The Monterey Jazz Festival unleashed a torrent of talent. It is now the longest continually running music festival in the world, drawing fans by the thousands and fueling a newfound fervor for jazz.
By Erika Thomas
For well over a halfcentury, the most revered performers in the world have gathered each autumn at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, delivering inspired performances to eager fans of that quintessentially American art form, jazz.
What would become the longest continually running music festival in the world was conceived by Ralph J. Gleason, a jazz writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, and disc jockey Jimmy Lyons. Lyons had dreams of producing an outdoor music event after experiencing Rhode Island's Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. In 1957, an inaugural concert in Monterey would be presented featuring Lyons' friend, Dave Brubeck, in a small room inside the fairgrounds. The pianist and composer told the Associated Press: "Jimmy asked my quartet to come and play ... at the fairgrounds that was a place where farmers showed their produce. It was not a very congenial ambiance, but our performance accomplished what Jimmy wanted — their approval to use the fairgrounds for a jazz festival."
On Oct. 3, 1958, the first official Monterey Jazz Festival took place. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie kicked off the festivities with a charismatic rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Gillespie would later walk onstage and kiss the hand of the man he called "Pops," his predecessor and idol, Louis Armstrong.
Today, three of the eight venues (the Garden Stage, the Arena, and the Night Club) remain intact and have been utilized continually since 1958. Five subsequent stages were added beginning in the 1990s, along with updated sound and lighting systems to boost production value and to better accommodate the growing lineup of artists. While other festivals can feel overwhelming in size and commercial sponsorship, Monterey has stayed true to its roots.
"The Monterey County Fairgrounds has a mystique not many other venues have," notes Timothy Orr, a publicist for Monterey Jazz Festival. "It's a relatively small space — just 20 acres, which makes it unique because of how intimate it feels."
In addition to Armstrong and Gillespie, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, Etta James, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, and Diana Krall are just a handful of the luminaries who have graced the stages.
Although people come from all over the world to attend the Monterey Jazz Festival, Orr says that it is still a "small" organization. "The notion of family is something that has always been exemplified," he adds. "We've only had two artistic directors since 1958: cofounder Jimmy Lyons and Tim Jackson, who took over for Jimmy in 1992. The same people have been coming back decade after decade to work on production. People have remained very loyal to the festival over the years."
And it isn't just those who work production who return.
"Years ago, legends would just show up to play, like Dizzy Gillespie," Orr says. "Diz is still considered the patron saint of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Sonny Rollins also played in 1958. Sonny and his music are a huge presence here as well."
A large part of the festival's legacy is its sponsorship of educational programs, on which more than $500,000 is spent annually. Thousands of students have benefitted from the festival's educational initiatives, which include Summer Jazz Camp, the Traveling Clinicians Program, the Next Generation Jazz Festival, and the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra.
Additionally, sponsorship from percussion manufacturer Remo, The National Endowment for the Arts, Inns of Monterey, Scheid Family Wines, DownBeat magazine, The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, and numerous others results in a major tourism boost, benefitting the city and the region financially. Educational sponsorships within Monterey County schools enrich students and provide future opportunities for musicians of all ages.
Still, perhaps one of the most exciting elements is the artist-in-residence program, which features a renowned artist to teach and mentor music students, providing them with performance opportunities and an unforgettable experience. Past residents have included the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Regina Carter, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Christian McBride, and Dianne Reeves.
"People love the Monterey Jazz Festival," Orr beams of attendees' appreciation of the festival, which is also home to the Monterey County Fair, a huge tradition itself. And of course, this is where another massively historical event, the Monterey Pop Festival, took place in 1967.
"The jazz audience is a listening audience," Orr says. "They want to hear every single note, to the point that you could hear a pin drop when an artist is on stage. And it's a very curated lineup of performers. When you walk onto the fairgrounds you can literally feel the weight of history because of all of the legends who have performed here. It is a thrill unlike any other."
The 61st Monterey Jazz Festival runs Sept. 21–23, 2018. Learn more about the music lineup at montereyjazzfestival.org