The New York Jazz Festival 1981 (formerly the famous Newport Festival), too gargantuan to be contained on the isle of Manhattan, spread out this year not only to Saratoga, but to New Jersey, and the State University in Purchase, N.Y., as well. With two or three events going on each night, as well as several afternoon solo piano recitals, it was hard to choose which one to hear. And in Manhattan, the sounds of jazz were in the air everywhere.
The spectrum of musicians at the festival was a kaleidoscope of styles and ages, from the fusion group Weather Report to veteran players like tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb and bluesman B. B. King. The "regulars" were there, of course: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson -- what festival would be complete without them? And two evenings were devoted to women in jazz, ranging from classic blues singers and instrumentalists to the younger, up-and-coming players. Pianists Marian McPartland and Dorothy Donegan appeared in an instrumental program, "Women Blow Their Own Horns," with Lucille Dixon (formerly with Earl "Fatha" Hines) on bass, Mary Osborne on guitar, and two relative newcomers: Barbara Merjan on drums and New York tenor saxophonist Jean Fineberg. With women becoming more visible in jazz, thanks to producers like Rosetta Reitz , who organized the women's concerts, it may not be long before women jass musicians are no longer a novelty on the bandstand.
It was most heartening to see some players at the festival who had gone to the commercial and disco route coming back to the realization that they are loved and appreciated as jazz players and that they dom have an audience in this genre. A case in point: pianist Herbie Hancock, whose long history has proved he is one of the most creative pianists around. Abandoning the electric format altogether, at least for this concert, Herbie played the grand piano, joined by Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and Wunderkindm Wynton Marsalis, an astonishingly talented young trumpeter, in an exciting, high-energy performance which branched out into new territory, while still remaining true to Hancock's roots. Thank heavens Herbie once again is letting us see what he can really do.
A "Salute to 'Sophisticated Ladies" was one of those events that every jazz festival should try at least once: afull-fledge ball with two big bands, harking back to the late '30s and '40s. This one was at the Roseland Ballroom, and Mercer Ellington's band was the star of the evening. Gregory Hines, Terri Klausner, and Priscilla Baskerville, from the cst of "Sophisticated Ladies," along with jazz singer Anita Moore, performed several numbers from the show.
Overall, however, the festival seemed rather fragmentary: there was never enough of any one thing to be able to sink your teeth in and feel satisfied. The attempt to get everybody and his uncle into the program resulted in a kind of over-kill -- what the listener ended up with was a lot of milk and very little meat. The "Musicians For Each Other" concert was a good example. True, the purpose of the event was to raise money to help needy musicians, and everyone wanted to have a hand in it, but to hear your favorite musicians come out and play one tune, or two at the most, and then move off-stage so somebody else could come on, was little more than a tease.
And the Gerry Mulligan-Mel Torme- George Shearing concert was marred by the same problem: It was just too much to try to absorb these three greats, in addition to Mulligan's big band and Shearing's virtuoso bassist, Brian Torff, in one short concert. With this "package" approach, the listener doesn't get enough of anyone or anything. This is not to discount, however, the splendid performances of the musicians involved, especially Torme's version of the seldom-heard Lerner- Lane tune "Too Late Now," sensitively accompanied only by Shearing at the piano, or his clever arrangement of "Mountain Greenery," with the pop tune "Spinning Wheel" superimposed over the melody by Mulligan's band.
Bill Cosby hosted a very, very loose evening of jazz and blues with tenor man Arnett Cobb, organist Jimmy Smith, drummer Mickey Roker, trumpeter Nat Adderley, and blues singer-guitarist B. B. King. The performance, despite some excellent soloing, suffered from distorted sound and disorganization. B. B. King saved the night, however, with a wonderfully soulful rendition of a slow minor blues: "I've Got a Good Mind to Give Up Marie."
Jazz film collector David Chertok blessed us once again with his vintage clips of jazz greats. This time, in addition to his films of individual jazz artists, Chertok presented a special big band program, which included clips of bands ranging from Claude Hopkins and Don Redman in the 1930s up through Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, and Duke Ellington, as well as the Dorsey bothers and many others. One outstanding film showed Woody Herman, in 1949, singing an up-tempo bop number, "Lemon Drop," with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs and trumpeter Shorty -- also singing! That Herman band included the legendary baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff. It was fun to see Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears -- the all-woman orchestra of the '40s. These women were great jazz players!
Audiences were enthusiastic for the most part, although it's distressing to hear at times the cultish tendency to scream and hoot over the most insignificant note from some of the j azz "superheroes."