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.

Celebrate 200 years of beer at Oktoberfest by the Bay

This year marks the bicentennial of perhaps the most popular beer festival in the world. Oktoberfest began on Oct. 12, 1810, when Prince Ludwig of Bavaria (later crowned King Ludwig I) shared the celebration of his marriage to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen with his subjects. Some 40,000 people attended the first Oktoberfest, which was highlighted by a horse race, an agricultural show and lots of beer.
Little did Ludwig know that people would still be hoisting festive steins 200 years later. Still held at the original site in Munich, Oktoberfest has mushroomed into a 16-day bacchanalia celebrated in brewery-sponsored beer halls that can hold 5,000 people. Last year, 5.7 million visitors swarmed 14 huge tents, drank 6.5 million liters of beer and consumed 111 oxen. Munich police reported 759 "beer corpses": people who had drunk themselves into oblivion. People come from all over the world to celebrate Bavarian culture, food and, most of all, beer. (You can follow the countdown here.)
If you can’t make it to Munich this year, you can still salute Ludwig's largesse and all things German at Pier 48 from Sept. 23-26 at Oktoberfest by the Bay, now in its 11th year. Unlike other Oktoberfest tributes, which are often just an excuse to drink Bud Light and eat hot dogs, Oktoberfest by the Bay re-creates an authentic German Oktoberfest experience. “The key is in the details,” said Dan McPhee, executive producer of Oktoberfest by the Bay. The sights, sounds, tastes and aromas all pay homage to the Bavarian festival.
In the beer tent, sponsored by Spaten, people will sit at the same tables and benches they’d be sitting on at the Spaten tent in Munich, McPhee said. They’ll also be drinking Spaten’s refreshing Franziskaner Hefeweizen, Spaten Pils and Premium (Munich Helles), and the seasonal Marzen, the only style served during the German celebration. The menu will feature Oktoberfest fare like sausages and sauerkraut, chicken roasted on site and Schweinshaxn (pig’s knuckle).

What better way to work off that Schweinshaxn and Marzen than a lively polka with The Nature Friends Schuhplattler dancing group, propelled by the 24-piece Chico Bavarian Band? “Involvement is encouraged,” McPhee said. If your feet are happy but your sense of rhythm is sad, the Nature Friends will help you work out your steps.
McPhee said that the experience at Oktoberfest by the Bay will be different depending on which day you go. Friday and Saturday nights will be more raucous (and probably more similar to the celebration in Munich), while Sunday will be more of a family day featuring a parade celebrating the 121st anniversary of German Heritage Day in San Francisco by the United German-American Societies of San Francisco and Vicinity Inc. (UGAS-SF).
Even though Oktoberfest by the Bay celebrates German heritage, McPhee said the event draws people from all cultures and from all over the Bay Area looking to have a good time.
Oktoberfest by the Bay outgrew its original digs in Fort Mason and last year settled into the more spacious 200,000-square foot hall at Pier 48, near AT&T Park. Although parking will be available, the organizers encourage people to take public transportation. Last year’s event drew around 45,000 people, which is quite an achievement considering that the organizers were initially unsure if the event would take off. “We didn’t know if people would do something as goofy as the chicken dance,” McPhee said.
It turns out that “goofy” and San Francisco go together remarkably well. So get out your lederhosen and tracht and your dirndel, kick it with some polka, and raise a glass of Spaten to Prince Ludwig, a true beer visionary.

Oktoberfest by the Bay
Thursday, Sept. 23 and Friday, Sept. 24 from 5 p.m.-midnight
Saturday, Sept. 25, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and 6 p.m.-midnight
Sunday, Sept. 26, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
21 and over on Friday and Saturday nights

Pier 48
Tickets are $30, except on Thursday, when tickets are $25
Check the Web site for ticket discounts

Other Bay Area German bars will also host Oktoberfest celebrations.
On Sept. 18, Gourmet Haus Staudt in Redwood City kicks off Oktoberfest with polka, beer and brats in the parking lot behind the bar. Chances are, Oktoberfest Marzen will be featured, but Gourmet Haus never fails to amaze me with their selection of German beer.

Gourmet Haus Staudt Gifts &Cafe
2615 Broadway St
Redwood City, CA 94063
(650) 364-9232