What is it about the Monterey Jazz Festival (MJF) that has allowed it to own the title of the world’s longest-running jazz festival? Is it the sublime late September Monterey climate? The history-soaked Monterey County Fairgrounds and its storied Pattee Arena? Or the stellar list of artists the festival has attracted to its stages since its founding in 1958? Most likely? All of the above, plus the legions of fans who make the pilgrimage each fall to soak up the sounds and catch up with the long-time friendships formed among regular attendees.
But one would be remiss in not mentioning the hard work going on behind the scenes that brings MJF to life each year. The full-time staff is quite small, but there’s also a mighty army of volunteers that ensures the show runs smoothly. Among the staffers is Tim Jackson. He joined MJF in 1992 as managing director and artistic director, but since 2010, has concentrated on the job of programming the festival’s lineup.
“This is my 27th year of booking MJF, and it doesn’t get any easier,” he says. “There is more and more competition for discretionary dollars. It seems like every community now has a jazz festival, so it gets harder to rise above the din.”
The jazz audience is also aging. “It’s difficult to maintain our base audience plus attract new patrons,” he explains. Nevertheless, most agree that Jackson has and continues to do an admirable job of presenting long-time favorites and introducing exciting new talent to MJF audiences.
The 62nd MJF is no exception. “I’m happy with the lineup,” Jackson says. “It’s a good mix of strong commercial names, some that people like to hear and have been here before—like Diana Krall, Chris Botti, Kenny Barron, Christian McBride, Bob James and Snarky Puppy—and some artists that may not be so familiar to the audience, such as Larkin Poe, Tank and the Bangas and Candy Dulfer.”
JAZZ FEST HIGHLIGHTS
The evening begins with “Soul on Soul: A Tribute to Mary Lou Williams,” performed by 2019 MJF Artists-in-Residence Allison Miller on drums and bassist Derrick Hodge.
“There’s always a way to look at pairings creatively. I thought it would be fun to have a rhythm section as Artists-in-Residence,” says Jackson. “They had never met, but I had a feeling they would get along musically and personally. They’ve become good friends. I suggested they work together to honor Williams, who performed here in 1965, ’71 and ’72.”
Next up are two National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters and Jazz Legends Gala Honorees, pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Dave Holland.
“Kenny first appeared at MJF in 1963 with Dizzy Gillespie,
and Dave debuted here with Miles Davis in 1969,” Jackson says. They will perform Friday as a trio (with drummer Johnathan Blake).
Audience favorite pianist/vocalist Diana Krall headlines the Friday night festivities.
This show promises to be especially exciting, starting with Larkin Poe, “a sister act with staying power,” according to National Public Radio. Atlanta natives who now call Nashville home, Rebecca and Megan Lovell are singer songwriters and multi-instrumentalists. They describe their music as “roots rock and roll…gritty, soulful and flavored by our southern heritage.”
Next up is New Orleans’ own Cha Wa, described as a “New Orleans brass band meets Mardi Gras Indian outfit.” It’s a sure bet that the crowd will be dancing with joy in the aisles when this crew storms the stage. And keep those dancing shoes on for another NOLA export, Tank and the Bangas. This genre-bending quartet seamlessly mixes hip-hop, R&B, soul and, of course, jazz into a unique gumbo of its own design.
“Some haven’t heard of these groups, but it’s guaranteed to be a great Saturday party,” says Tim Jackson.
Bassist and Showcase Artist Christian McBride is certainly no stranger to MJF. He’s performed many times, both on his own and in support of others. This Grammy-winning Philadelphia native is seemingly everywhere in the jazz world, and rightfully so. He brings his Big Band to the stage.
“We lost the great Roy Hargrove last year,” Jackson says. The legendary trumpeter succumbed to kidney disease at the too-soon age of 49. “I asked Christian to write a piece to honor this great friend of the festival.” McBride will debut this year’s MJF Commission piece “Roy Anthony: The Fearless One” to begin the evening.
Brazilian native triple threat pianist/vocalist/composer Eliane Elias has earned multiple Grammy awards during a career that has produced nearly 30 albums, selling more than 2.2 million copies. She will be showcasing her virtuosity while performing selections from her latest offering, “Love Stories” to the MJF audience, featuring an all-star cast of instrumentalists.
Saturday’s headliner is one of the hardest-working jazz musicians in the world today.
“I’ve averaged 250 days a year on the road in the last 17 years,” says trumpeter Chris Botti. “We’re dedicated to keeping up this touring schedule. It’s a harsh mistress, the trumpet, but Doc Severinsen is 92 and still going.”
Botti lays claim to the title “America’s largest-selling instrumental artist” with more than 4 million albums sold. Botti has worked at the heights of the music business for decades.
“My first pro gig was with Frank Sinatra when I was 21,” he recalls. His leap to stardom came via a collaboration with vocalist/bassist Sting. “I was playing with [English progressive rock drummer] Bill Bruford’s band and someone from Sting’s organization heard me,” Botti says. “I was subsequently hired to play on a version of his song ‘Roxanne.’ Sting made me a promise that he would expose my trumpet to the world. And that’s what happened.”
Later, Botti wanted Sting to add his voice to a cover of a signature Sinatra song “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.”
“He said ‘yes,’ and we’ve been friends ever since,” Botti says.
He is pleased about playing MJF. “It is the jewel of American jazz festivals,” he enthuses. “It’s got to be the most prestigious in North America. The people are so passionate, and it’s so well run. It’s an honor to be invited back.”
Since day one, education has been at the forefront of the MJF mission. Scores of kids have benefitted from the festival’s educational programs, going on to perform as professionals at the festival itself as professional purveyors of jazz. That’s why every Sunday afternoon begins with a performance by the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, under the baton of Education Director Paul Contos, and featuring the year’s Artists-in-Residence, in this case Allison Miller and Derrick Hodge.
Next up is San Francisco’s powerhouse 20-piece Pacific Mambo Orchestra, bringing their brand of Latin Big Band music, followed by the MJF debut of saxophonist Candy Dulfer. This versatile Dutch artist has performed with a diverse Who’s Who of the pop music world, including Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, Van Morrison, Sheila E., Pink Floyd, Chaka Khan and the late great Aretha Franklin. Prince once said. “When I want sax, I call Candy.” But she is firmly grounded in the jazz world as well, as evidenced by her recent release, “Together.”
The evening features a performance in the second slot by legendary smooth jazz piano master Bob James, saxman David Sanborn and bassist extraordinaire Marcus Miller. These three are teaming up to revisit “Double Vision,” the acclaimed album they released in 1986. That record took home a Grammy for Best Jazz Fusion Performance. This super group is preceded by a fresh face, vocalist Jazzmeia Horn, making her MJF debut. “We’re lucky to have a strong slate of female performers this year,” Tim Jackson says. “And I’m particularly excited about Jazzmeia’s performance.”
Ending the 2019 MJF is the 19-piece Snarky Puppy, led by bassist Michael Teague.
“I’ve personally played the festival many times,” Teague says. “And Snarky Puppy has played it twice. It’s a very relaxed vibe for a performer, which I like a lot. It’s got a Nor Cal, super chill feel to it. And you get to mix with all your favorite musicians. It’s a very well-organized festival in a beautiful setting.”
In describing Snarky Puppy, it’s probably just best to take their own words for it: “It isn’t exactly a jazz band. It isn’t a fusion band…definitely not a jam band.” The New York Times’ Nate Chinen advises, “take them for what they are, rather than judge them for what they’re not.”
Although we’ve dealt with the main arena acts, there is much more to MJF. Four venues showcase continuous music and there’s a diverse variety of food and merchandise vendors. “There are many ways to enjoy the festival,” says Tim Jackson. “It’s a misnomer that tickets are hard to get or that it’s sold out. It’s great when people come for the whole weekend because it’s a wonderful way to immerse yourself in this art form.”
But it’s also possible to obtain tickets for one day, one show or a grounds pass (still one of the best deals in music, affording literally dozens of performances all weekend for $155). Jackson stresses that there’s something for everyone. “We definitely have a ticket to suit your needs.”
The 2019 Monterey Jazz Festival is September 27-29. Tickets at montereyjazzfestival.org.