The jazz festival - an identity crisis
New York — What makes a jazz festival a jazz festival? That's the question being raised by producer George Wein's latest series of jazz festivals, which boast almost as much rock, soul, and other kinds of music as they do jazz. These are the Kool Jazz Festivals, the most important events of their kind in the United States - particularly the one in New York, which is the direct descendant of the original Newport Festival, a two-day event 30 years ago that changed the face of summertime jazz forever, both here and abroad.
True, there has always been a smattering of pop music in jazz festivals, but this year there was enough of a departure from a regular jazz format to arouse considerable comment among concertgoers. Should a jazz festival, they ask, include names like Gladys Knight and the Pips, Ashford and Simpson, Kool and the Gang, Patti La Belle, and Bobby Womack, Crusaders, and Spyro Gyra. All of these and other, similar acts are included in this year's lineup.
It can be argued that since these acts don't constitute the main part of the festival, it really doesn't matter - they're crowd pleasers and moneymakers, and their presence makes it possible to include some lesser-known innovators and groundbreakers who only draw a handful of people. Nevertheless, a great gulf exists between music that is written and performed with the popular taste uppermost in mind, and music that is created principally for the purpose of artistic expression. And jazz, despite its past and present connections with the world of entertainment, is essentially creative music. Should it, then, be required to compete with pop music?
Although the music of minimalist composer Philip Glass and cabaret artist Bobby Short could hardly be called ''pop,'' the inclusion of these artists in the New York festival raised more than a few eyebrows. ''It's not jazz!'' was the general cry. The question is, is there real danger that jazz festivals will become so watered down that they will lose their identity? Or are those who object to the addition of pop and other nonjazz music merely fanatical purists?
The rest of the programming, at least for the New York festival, which ran from June 22 to July 1, indicates that, at least in 1984, both mainstream and experimental jazz still constituted most of the programming. The 10-day event included concerts at Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls; solo recitals at Carnegie Recital Hall; experimental music at Soundscape; a jazz ferryboat ride; jazz in the clubs at the Blue Note and in Fat Tuesday's concerts at Waterloo Village in New Jersey; a Brooklyn festival; and a weekend of music at Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
The overall roster featured Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, and Artie Shaw's All-New Orchestra; big bands of Benny Carter, Lionel Hampton, and Illinois Jacquet; Wynton Marsalis, Maynard Ferguson, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme, and Carmen McRae; Oscar Peterson and Cecil Taylor on the same bill; Swiss pianist composer George Gruntz and his Concert Jazz Band; and a night of vintage jazz films presented by David Chertok.
Of the concerts I attended, several stood out and deserve special mention. The entire 1984 festival was dedicated to Count Basie, who passed on earlier this year, and an affectionate salute was given him at Carnegie Hall. Around 20 Basie alumni, as well as the pianists Hank Jones, Dick Hyman, and John Lewis, performed in a variety of settings. Among them was a re-creation of the Benny Moten Band, of which Basie was a member in the '30s, and the Reno Club Band, in which Basie was playing when he was discovered by record producer John Hammond. Hammond himself was present at the concert, and reminisced warmly and humorously about that historical event.
The late guitarist Django Rinehardt was also saluted at Carnegie Hall in a program that featured his longtime associate violinist Stephane Grattelli and teen-age Gypsy guitarist Bireli Lagrene in his first American appearance. Grattelli's set fairly oozed with charm. The violinist was in fine fettle, sensitively backed by bassist Brian Torff and guitarists Martin Taylor and Marc Fossetl. But it was the young Lagrene who really stole the show, playing like a reincarnation of Rinehardt; he astonished the audience with his mastery of the instrument and strong rhythmic and melodic feel.
Of the solo artists I heard at Carnegie Recital Hall, San Francisco pianist Denny Zeitlin stood out as exceptionally expressive and dynamically rich. His impressionistic musical vision, implied rhythms, and strong walking bass lines suggested both Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano. In a set of standards, originals, and free improvisations, his own composition ''Country Fair'' stood out for its perfect imagery.
A particularly delightful surprise was the re-creation of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra on a dismal rainy afternoon at Waterloo Village. Trumpeters Dick Sudhalter and Harold Lieberman put together the orchestra and the arrangements (some of which had never been recorded), adding the Manhattan Rhythm Kings to represent Whiteman's Rhythm Boys, and vocalist Nik Munson as the young Bing Crosby. Sudhalter played the Bix Biederbecke parts skillfully, and everyone involved did a splendid job.
A word about Soundscape, a series of experimental jazz concerts produced by Verna Gillis as part of the festival: Although Soundscape is off the beaten track, downtown and far away from Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, the series this year presented some of the most interesting music in the festival: saxophonist Anthony Braxton, pianist Michele Rosewoman and Univision (Rosewoman is one of New York's most innovative composers), a night of percussion with Milford Grades, Don Moye, Andrew Cyrille, Kenny Clarke, and Daniel Ponce, and the excellent avant-garde pianist Marilyn Cristell, among others. Pity that these programs were scheduled at the same time as the Carnegie and Avery Fisher Hall concerts, forcing these people to compete with the like of Sarah Vaughan, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis.
The tour, which began in Cleveland on June 7, will run through Oct. 7. The schedule for coming events: Cincinnati, July 26-28; St. Louis, Aug. 21-25; Chicago, Aug. 29-Sept. 2; Detroit, Aug. 29-Sept. 3; Baltimore, Aug. 31-Sept. 2; and Houston, Oct. 5-7.