At 50, The Monterey Jazz Festival is arguably the oldest jazz festival in the country -- the argument coming from whether the slightly older Newport Jazz Festival's one-year hiatus in 1961 restarted the bragging-rights clock.
Monterey is marking its first half-century the same way the Newport Jazz Festival did in 2004: by loading a bunch of great players on a bus for a barnstorming national concert tour. The bus stops at the Landmark Theater Feb. 17.
It's a very different country from the one into which Monterey was born. In 1958 gas was less than 25 cents a gallon; Elvis was in the Army; television was black and white (mostly white because opposing basic civil rights was not only socially acceptable but also widely popular). Even in the idyllic setting of coastal California the idea of an openly interracial concert faced resistance. In the end, festival organizer Jimmy Lyons says in his history of the event: "It was disorganized, frantic and searching but it won over the people of the Monterey Peninsula. The Festival had put its music in the air."
Five decades later, the music is on the road. "It's been a lot of fun already," trumpeter Terence Blanchard says. One of the "Young Lions," the generation of players (including Wynton Marsalis) who energized the jazz scene in the 1980s, Blanchard has been successful as both a performer and a prolific film composer, with more than 40 scores to his credit. "I don't get much of a chance to do bus tours. We've been traveling together since early January," he says, "hanging around with great musicians, everybody doing their thing."
Also on the bus are pianist Benny Green, the virtuosic protégé of the late giant Oscar Peterson; acclaimed vocalist Nnenna Freelon; legendary saxophonist (and standout in the Newport Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary Tour) James Moody; and Blanchard band rhythm section bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott. "[Festival General Manager] Tim Jackson asked if I would be interested in touring with this multifaceted band," Blanchard says. "It was a no-brainer."
Green says he's impressed with the commitment of the other players; especially Moody, who is 82. "I think he first played Monterey 47 years ago," Green says, "and he is still working, excited about learning new things every day." Although he's nearly four decades younger, pianist Green has a long history with the festival; he debuted there with the MJF Monterey County All Star High School Band.
The ad hoc all-star group is a staple of large-scale jazz events, but being on the road together forges a different level of interaction. "This is a band, and it's a beautiful thing," Blanchard says. "We are growing night by night and week by week. Everybody is into the music, and it makes a difference."
The show is structured so that not everyone is onstage all the time, and everyone has a feature. Green has brought his music to the band, as has Kendrick Scott (whose appealing debut "The Source" was released last year). Blanchard will lead the band in a performance of a movement from his new, Grammy-nominated CD, "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)." The music was the soundtrack for Spike Lee's award-winning documentary "When the Levees Broke" and was performed at the 2007 Monterey festival with a full orchestra.
But it's a group effort in the end. "It's a great music show; there is something for everyone," Blanchard says. He promises the evening will be a satisfying musical banquet: "The main thing is to present music in its best form, and to have fun. And it's easy to do with great musicians like this to set the table." S
The Monterey Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary Tour comes to the Landmark Theater Sunday, Feb. 17, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $22-$32. Call 289-8980 or visit http://modlin.richmond.edu.