John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Succession of leadership in any organization is inevitable. For instance, since 1958 the United States has had 13 presidents, but only two people have guided the Monterey Jazz Festival (MJF) in those
65 years, Jimmy Lyons and Tim Jackson. That’s about to change when Jackson steps down this year after 32 years with MJF, first as executive director then artistic director.
Radio personality and jazz promoter Lyons and his friend, music critic Ralph J. Gleason, cooked up the idea of a west coast jazz festival as an answer to Rhode Island’s Newport Jazz Festival. His idea was to take the music out of dank clubs and “out in the open, with lots of trees and grass…in the wind, under the sky where it belongs.” That’s an apt description for the location chosen for their production, the Pattee Arena at the bucolic Monterey Fairgrounds. The artists Lyons booked for that show included Dizzy Gillespie, Harry James, Dave Brubeck and Billie Holiday.
At 19, San Jose native Tim Jackson was already involved in music production (with Half Moon Bay’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society), while also actively gigging on flute and saxophone. He took up residence in Santa Cruz with his wife Lori in the 1970s and co-founded the Kuumbwa Jazz Center where he has served as executive and artistic director. Interestingly, he never attended the jazz festival going on every September just 42 miles south. “You would think that being a musician and an industry professional that I would be down at Monterey every year,” Jackson says. “I had no reason; I just never went. I had nothing against it, I just had other things to do.” He befriended MJF board member Ruth Fenton, who eventually invited him to a festival as her guest. “We had great seats. I remember seeing Ray Charles and the Timeless All Stars with Bobby Hutcherson and Harold Land. I really had fun.”
In 1989, Lyons was putting together a Latin program and wanted a local group. “I was playing in Sofrito, a Salsa band, and Jimmy hired us. Now, I was able to see the festival both as a performer and as a patron. I enjoyed it as a patron, but not so much as a performer. To be honest, I was surprised by how low the production values were. I thought, ‘Wow, we do a much better job at Kuumbwa.’ I stored that information from a musician’s perspective.” That would come in handy later.
Shortly thereafter, Jackson heard that Lyons was planning to step down. “I mentioned it to my wife, and she said, ‘why don’t you apply?’ I thought that surely there was a succession plan in place, but she replied, ‘you don’t know that.’” So, he wrote to Fenton, stayed busy at Kuumbwa and forgot about it. Months later Fenton called, and Jackson was hired in 1991. “I thought I’d have to leave Kuumbwa and go to work for MJF full time.” But he stayed at Kuumbwa. “I could have the value of having my feet on the ground and hearing the music week in and week out. That would help me in programming Monterey.”
Jackson says it was an interesting time. Lyons’ roots and musical taste reached back to the Big Band Era. “By the time I got here, he was in his 70s. He started to get cold feet.” An agreement was reached in which Lyons would program the 1991 MJF and Jackson would take over in 1992. “I give Jimmy full marks for developing the festival. In the ’60s, all the greats were there. MJF was even the precursor to the Monterey Pop Festival. Jimmy booked the Jefferson Airplane, and other rock bands.” But by the late 1980s, the program had become somewhat static and conservative. “Of course, all our heroes were playing like Dave Brubeck, Modern Jazz Quartet, Dizzy, Clark Terry. That was Jimmy’s taste. But there was a whole other part of jazz that wasn’t there. I don’t think he was interested in branching out much.” But Tim Jackson certainly was.
He went in headfirst in 1992, and immediately tackled the production issues he’d experienced as a performer. “We had good people, but they weren’t given the tools they needed.” Then he programmed his festival. Jackson’s opening Friday night featured the then upcoming Roy Hargrove, the Yellowjackets, Arturo Sandoval and a Miles Davis tribute featuring Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams. Definitely not Big Band Era artists. A transportation error led to another innovation. “Arturo found himself on a plane to Monterrey, Mexico, meaning there were three acts. It was a blessing in disguise. That extra time allowed us to pace the programs to give the artists and the audience the best possible product. You must set the table correctly from the beginning.”
When asked if there are any musical moments that stand out in his three decades at the helm, Jackson recalls the 2016 tribute to Quincy Jones as a standout. “A lot of people had done Quincy tributes. I had a different idea. From 1969 to 1971 Quincy produced three crossover big band albums, “Walking in Space,” “Gula Matari” and “Smackwater Jack.” I wasn’t trying to do Quincy from A to Z, but Quincy from J to L. I called [bassist] Christian McBride because I knew he’d know those records front to back and he agreed to be music director. We got as many of the still active original performers, Valerie Simpson, Dave Grusin and flautist Hubert Laws—who was 80 but still playing his butt off. Quincy came up for the weekend, listened to all the groups and hung out with his old buddy Clint Eastwood. That was a truly special event.”
A few years ago, Jackson reinstated the popular MJF commission pieces. Lyons had initiated the idea, but it had lapsed, and Jackson was inspired to recreate it. Many stellar composers have contributed pieces, including Billy Childs, Wayne Shorter (he did three) and Maria Schneider. “The one we did last year with Chris Bowers in celebration of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary was one of the most powerful we’ve ever done. The way Chris incorporated and blended video, electronics and acoustic instruments was extremely powerful…people in the audience were in tears.”
“One thing I’m proud of: If you walk into the arena now and see what it looks like on a Thursday afternoon in March. It’s beat. It’s a funky, old, 60-year-old horse arena. It hasn’t had much done to it. When you realize how we transform it, everything from the sod we install to keep the dust down, to the incredible advances in sound reproduction over the decades. It’s really gratifying, fun and exciting.”
One of the jewels in the MJF crown is its education program. “The festival was founded as a nonprofit in 1958. Jimmy was smart in his forward-thinking vision in that regard. The education program started over 50 years ago with the California High School All Star Band, now the national Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. We’ve never paid lip service to jazz education. It’s always been a forward-facing, strong part of our DNA and something we do year-round. We’re constantly challenging ourselves to being more relevant, just as we do with the festival.” Many performers who have gone through the program have gone on to jazz careers, including Patrice Rushen, Mark Turner, Dave Coz and Donny McCaslin.
What does life look like for Tim Jackson after three decades at MJF? “I’ll be here until February 2024, then serve as an advisor for a time. A lot will depend on my successor and if they require help or guidance. There’s an international search for that person and we’re hoping to introduce them at this year’s festival. But it’s time to pass the torch. I’m staying at Kuumbwa. We’re celebrating 50 years in 2025 and I’ll be there at least that long.
“I’ll be able to play music a lot more and I’m open to projects, to teaching workshops, but I have no interest in producing another festival. This has been great and a lot of fun, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to lead the Monterey Jazz Festival for all these years.”