In 1963, Dick Gibson (1926-1998) threw a party in Denver, where he lived. An investment banker who expanded his fortune when he founded the Water Pik company, Gibson invited well-heeled friends to mingle with his favorite mainstream musicians and listen to them play. He ran his jazz parties for three decades and hired a cross section of artists that included James Moody, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Clark Terry, Ross Tompkins, Victor Feldman, Budd Johnson, Trummy Young and Cliff Leeman, to name a few. Gibson’s parties were so successful that they inspired similar events across the country, from Clearwater Beach, Florida, to Sun Valley, Idaho.
One of the newer parties on the circuit is Jazz at Newport, held each fall since 2002 in its namesake, a town of 10,000 on the Oregon Coast. Newport’s long sandy beach, seen here, didn’t get much attention from the several hundred listeners who attended the mini-festival last weekend; a packed schedule kept them occupied. Presented by the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, Jazz at Newport is booked, organized and straw-bossed by Holly Hofmann, who found time to play her flute only twice. She put together a roster of 23 musicians of various persuasions. Their mutual goal did not, for the most part, encompass complexity or freedom from harmony, rhythm and structure. Farthest out was the Sunday morning session by Weber Iago’s adventurous Chamber Jazz Project, and it had jazz time at its heart even as it verged on textures of modern classical music.
The festivities began on Friday evening with the first appearance by drummer Jeff Hamilton’s longtime trio with pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Christoph Luty. Their opening set established a standard of cohesion and hard swing, Hamilton astonishing the audience with the variety of his playing with wire brushes. In the mix-and-match spirit of the party, throughout the weekend the three would drift in and out of other combinations of players.
At a Saturday morning panel, an audience member asked how musicians who have never played together know what to do when they are combined in a spontaneous jam session.
“Jazz has a common language,” Hamilton said. “We agree on a tune, a key and a tempo. Experienced players usually adjust to one another more or less instantly.”
Allow me to expand on that with two passages from, coincidentally, the “Common Language” chapter of a book I wrote:
Pure improvisation born of absolution inspiration, a solo created out of whole cloth, is likely to be as remarkable as it is rare. Most solos are combinations of inspiration and spare parts. The creative process of improvisation is selective, and what is selected is influenced by a number of elements including the music’s harmonic structure, the tempo, rhythmic qualities, the musician’s fellow players, and his memory. His brain has a stockpile of musical knowledge, general and specific. The specifics include phrases from his own experience and that of others. They are pressed into service as quotations and worked into the new performance. Sometimes they are inserted piecemeal, sometimes merely alluded to.
Mutual access to a community body of knowledge makes possible successful and enjoyable collaboration among jazzmen of different generations and stylistic persuasions who have never before played together. It is not unusual at jazz festivals and jam sessions for musicians in their sixties and seventies to be teamed with others in their teens or twenties. In the best of such circumstances, the age barrier immediately falls.
If I had written that today rather than 20-odd years ago, the word “his” might not have popped up, especially if I’d written it after hearing Anat Cohen, Kristin Korb and Holly Hofmann at Newport. Cohen joined bassist Luty, guitarist Howard Alden and drummer Lewis Nash. Following a relaxed “Shiny Stockings,” they tore into “Limehouse Blues,” which featured a blistering soprano-guitar unison passage that Alden and Cohen had worked out in their New York encounters. Ellington’s “The Mooche” (clarinet) and Monk’s “Ask Me Now” (tenor) preceded one of the Brazilian choros (clarinet) that Cohen has been favoring lately. Riding on the energy of the rhythm section, she had remarkable power and command on all three horns. The common language principle was in full force among these four.
Pianist Monty Alexander’s first set reunited him with Hamilton, the drummer on Alexander’s celebrated 1976 live trio recording at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Hassan Shakur (formerly known as J.J. Wiggins) providing bass lines, they opened with the signature tune from Montreux, “Night Mist Blues.” It took them about three seconds to recapture their rapport and contagious swing and the audience about six seconds to roar their approval as they recognized the tune. The good feeling expanded through a six-tune set that included “Come Fly With Me” and “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” recalling Alexander’s association with Frank Sinatra. Shakur’s bass solos captivated the audience, not for the last time during the weekend.
The first of two late-night jam sessions took place in a long, narrow restaurant at the Shilo Inn on the Newport waterfront. The sound system crashed, so the set went mostly acoustic except for some jury-rigged miking for Korb’s vocals. Her colleagues were Terell Stafford, trumpet; Howard Alden, guitar; and Lewis Nash, drums. They opened with “I’ll Close My Eyes,” then did Sonny Rollins’ “Pent-up House,” Stafford unleashing his first torrents of high notes that were to have the audience applauding and cheering him all weekend. The subtlety of his intriguing alternate harmonies on Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me” got less reaction from the audience, but plenty from the musicians. Korb’s vocal on “Take The ‘A’ Train” featured her clever lyrics and on “My Romance,” her quick thinking. The illumination flickered and dimmed as she approached the part of the lyric that goes, “Nor a dance to a constantly surprising refrain,” so she instantly substituted “…surprising light change” and got a laugh. The session ended with Nash not only drumming but also scatting the blues as Alden and Korb provided propulsion. Alden and Stafford took it out with the classic “Walkin’.”
The Saturday morning panel of Hamilton, Korb and Stafford had Hofmann as moderator and participant. They tackled the perennial question: is there a young audience for jazz? “Yes,” Hamilton said, “but not here. They can’t afford it. You have the money to come here for a few days,” he told the audience, average age well above 50. “They don’t.” He said that the youngsters are listening in new clubs that cater to them. Stafford said he is encouraged by the numbers of young people attending festivals like Lionel Hampton in Idaho and Port Townsend in Washington. As for inner city kids, the consensus was that clinics and courses are available to them, but to learn about jazz, they have to want to learn, and they are fixated on hip-hop. If that’s a generalization, it’s not much of one.
The Saturday afternoon sets began with each of three musicians playing alone. Hendelman did a medley of tunes by Ray Noble that ended with a fleet “Cherokee.” Korb’s bass solo was on “Green Dolphin Street,” and so was her vocal; she accompanied herself, occasionally drifting into bass-voice unison lines. Hamilton, Alexander and Portland vibraharpist Mike Horsfall each played an unaccompanied solo. In the duo segment that followed, Alden and Cohen opened and closed with pieces from the 1920s. Cohen was on soprano for Duke Ellington’s “Jubilee Stomp” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp.” The middle of their set included Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages,” the guitarist and the clarinetist floating through the famous melody as if on a cloud. Stafford and pianist Mike Wofford followed with “Taking a Chance on Love.” There was a lot of Clifford Brown in the beginning of Stafford’s solo, then growls and note bending by a trumpeter who makes judicious use of his flexibility and range on the horn. If his playing was often spectacular at Newport, the flash was never at the expense of taste or musicality. Wofford’s and Stafford’s counterpoint chorus and tag ending on “Close Your Eyes” stay in the mind, as does Wofford’s rich 16-bar solo on “Old Folks,” which led to a suspended ending complete with a “Country Gardens” quote from Stafford. Remember—spare parts are allowed.
In trio sets, Korb took Luty’s place in the Hamilton Trio, singing and playing and locking up nicely with the drummer and Hendelman. Luty then joined Howard Alden and Lewis Nash, opening with Bud Powell’s “Strictly Confidential.” Using brushes, Nash was flying through the breaks. Alden led the trio through two pieces by one of his guitar heroes, Barney Kessel. In a three-generation guitar continuum, Kessel’s “I Remember Django” honors one of his inspirations. Alden captured the spirit and sometimes the letter of both of his predecessors. On “64 Bars on Wilshire,” taken at warp speed, Alden simply wailed, powered by Luty’s and Nash’s teamwork.
The Rifftides staff thanks the veteran Newport photographer Nancy Jane Reid for letting us use her pictures of some of the sessions. There’s more coming about Jazz at Newport, but for now, I gotta get me some Zs (© Dave Frishberg).