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Monterey Jazz Festival swings into action

Music event celebrates 47 years on California coast

By Amy Cox

Terence Blanchard will premiere his tribute to Dizzy Gillespie, "A Mood for Dizzy," at this year's festival.
Monterey Jazz Festival
Arts, Culture and Entertainment
Monterey (California)

(CNN) -- Musicians tune up, cooks fire up and ticket holders line up as the Monterey Jazz Festival swings into its 47th year, and fans from around the world celebrate food, festivities and all that's jazz.

Buddy Guy, Bobby McFerrin, Clark Terry, Chaka Khan and Regina Carter are just some of the 500 performers who will take the stages September 17-19 for the Monterey Jazz Festival, the oldest continuously operated jazz festival in the United States.

Since its beginning in 1958, the outdoor California festival with the scenic seaside setting has welcomed a who's who of the jazz world, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holliday and the Modern Jazz Quartet.

"It's almost easier to say who was not there over the years than it is to say who was," says Bill Minor, a jazz expert and author of a Monterey Jazz Festival history. "When you're there, you get that sense of incredible history. [In one of my books], I talk about hearing these voices of the past. It's impossible to be there and not do that."

Tim Jackson, the festival's general manager for more than 10 years, believes history plays a big part in making the Monterey Jazz Festival different from other music events. In addition, he cites the continued artistic integrity and the physical space itself -- a 20-acre oak-studded fairground made up of several stages with booths offering food, art and crafts.

"I think you put the combination of those three elements together and you've got a real premiere festival," Jackson says.

"The ground rules that were laid down early have stayed in place," explains Minor, who has traveled the world researching jazz. "The festival avoids the too trite or too popular. From the start, they were committed to getting unusual combinations of musicians playing together. I think they've held all those principles and that's not easy to do over 40 some years."

For music lover Judy Rand in Seattle, Washington, all of those reasons have spurred her return to Monterey each year since 1985 for the weekend festival.

"It's the best kind of music listening experience," she says, "because you can just go and surrender yourself to listen to the jazz, smell the barbecue cooking and breathe the salt air of Monterey."

Music education

But the Monterey Jazz Festival is not just about a three-day event. It helps fund education programs and music events all year long, according to Jackson.

One of those is the artist in the school program, which sends professional musicians into almost all of Monterey County's middle and high schools to expose students to music.

The festival organization also produces and supports two high-school All-Star bands every year. Both groups perform at the festival and also have opportunities to tour for festivals in Japan, Canada and Europe.

For Stevie Melanson, a Monterey resident and longtime festival attendee, the high school All-Star bands' performances are always a highlight of her Monterey Jazz Festival experience.

"The young kids' contribution and their understanding of jazz is just awesome," she says. "These kids have embraced the jazz community and they play very well with stage musicians. It's just phenomenal."

This year's festival also features the premiere of a commissioned piece by trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, "A Mood for Dizzy." The song is a tribute to fellow trumpeter and legendary musician Dizzy Gillespie, a frequent performer at the festival and fan favorite.

Music workshops, gallery exhibits and panel discussions on jazz, all open to every ticket holder, are also on the festival's schedule. This year, Clint Eastwood -- a jazz enthusiast and festival staple -- along with pianist Marian McPartland discuss her long-running radio show "Piano Jazz."

Jazz discoveries

Regina Carter, the festival's first year-round artist-in-residence, will perform with her quintet.

For music fans, the Monterey Jazz Festival offers the opportunity to find some new favorite artists or experience different types of jazz while wandering the grounds.

"It's a great place to just sample," Seattle's Rand says. "[This year] I'm looking forward to not only seeing performers I saw five or 10 years ago, but also to what surprises there might be from people I've never heard of. While I go get a plate of Smokin' Jim's ribs and hear something wonderful playing out of the corner of my ear, I might wander over and make this amazing discovery."

"If there was a myth I could dispel, this would be it: Don't come here thinking that you're only going to see a big name," agrees fellow fan Melanson. "Because everyone playing is so awesome that you would not want to bypass them."

Those discoveries continue to fuel the interest in the festival and in jazz itself, says author Minor, decrying claims that come and go over the years that the genre's fan base is dwindling.

"I don't get so concerned as some might about record sales in the United States itself, because the music is happening worldwide," he says. "Jazz is constantly renewing. ... Jazz fans are still totally committed to the music. They don't just like it, they love it."

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