Monterey Jazz: a feast for the senses, balm for the soul

For three glorious nights and two days every year in September, the jazz center of the world isn’t New York City, Paris or New Orleans, but the dusty Monterey Fairgrounds. World class jazz musicians and their fans have been making the annual pilgrimage to Monterey for 53 years. The music commences on Friday night at four venues concurrently—two indoors, two outside—and continues on Saturday and Sunday from noon until after midnight. It’s impossible to hear everything. The quality and abundance of the music, enhanced by intimate interviews and a day devoted to youth bands, make Monterey one of the best jazz festivals anywhere.

But there’s more to Monterey Jazz than simply the sum of its many parts. Over the years, the artists have forged a rare bond with music lovers, many of whom have attended the festival for decades. Performing in Dizzy’s Den with guitar virtuosos Russell Malone and Romero Lubambo, jazz chanteuse Dianne Reeves (pictured) beamed that she felt so comfortable, it seemed as if she was performing in her living room. Needless to say, Reeves captivated the packed house with her inimitable phrasing and intimate personal anecdotes.

The Monterey Jazz Festival spans the jazz spectrum, with veterans like the perpetually youthful octogenarian drummer Roy Haynes and pianists Chick Corea and Ahmad Jamal mingled with talented young rising stars, showcased on Friday. Few in the audience knew quite what to expect from the quixotic Nellie McKey, dressed in a bright yellow thrift store frock and channeling Doris Day (her most recent album, “Normal as Blueberry Pie,” is a tribute to Doris). Alternately disarming and provocative, McKey was entirely mesmerizing, seamlessly mixing her Doris Day repertoire (“The Very Thought of You,” “Crazy Rhythm,” “Wonderful Guy”) with jaw-dropping ditties of her own, like “Mother of Pearl” (“Feminists don’t have a sense of humor…”). Remarkable and unforgettable.
Some jazz appeals to the intellect, but certain styles, like New Orleans jazz, are more visceral and challenge you not to move and tap your feet. Troy Andrews, aka Trombone Shorty, brought the Big Easy to Monterey in all its many musical flavors. Shorty gives his forebears like Professor Longhair their due, but also expresses what’s current in the bubbling gumbo of the Crescent City, stirring infectious funk and rhythm and blues tastefully into the heady mix. Shorty’s enthusiasm and his tight band had the jam-packed Garden Stage rocking—literally from our shaky perch on the aluminum bleachers.

Jazz fans need to fortify themselves for the long afternoons and evenings of music, and Monterey has plenty to offer, from Korean barbecue, fried chicken wings and fried catfish and barbecued ribs to funnel cakes and cinnamon buns made onsite. The sights and smells of the food court are almost irresistible. For the past few years, North Coast Brewery has been the exclusive beer vendor, and their beer is exceptional: Scrimshaw Pilsner, Red Seal Ale and Brother Thelonious Belgian-style ale are a tasty match with the diverse foods at the Monterey Jazz Festival food stalls. Brother Thelonious, for example, was unexpectedly delicious with a chewy cookie infused with dried cranberries. Co-owner Tom Allen and brew master Mark Ruedrich were on hand to discuss their beer.
Certainly the emphasis of Monterey Jazz is on the excellent music, but there’s more to the festival than that. It’s a consistent and reliable celebration of the human spirit, camaraderie and joie de vivre that’s more than welcome in our trying times.

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