Saturday, May 9, 2009

All in Our Beginnings

Even though I heard my first jazz performances on 78s from my dad's collection, before I even started grammar school, I didn't begin falling in love with the music until my high school years. In 1972, thanks to a friend with an extra ticket, I attended my first ever live gig, one of the concerts during the summer the Newport Jazz Festival moved to New York. This was, I believe, the year after the riots at Newport, Rhode Island, which resulted in George Wein moving the event to the Big Apple. The relocated festival was heavily promoted on tv shows both afternoon local and national late night, and I tried to watch as many appearances by participating artists as I could. Therefore I was thrilled when that friend invited me to go with her to a concert at Carnegie Hall. I recognized the names of a few of the performers: the Modern Jazz Quartet and Stan Getz. (Heck, after hearing Girl from Ipanema so often during the mid 60s, everyone seemed to know who Stan Getz was!) But there were two who were new to me: Gary Burton, who would be performing with Stan, and Pharoah Sanders, who would soon introduce my inexperienced ears to free jazz.

The big night came and my friend and I, all dressed up to go to the "City," traveled on the RR train to 59th Street and 5th Avenue. (We were so naive we didn't even realize that we could have gotten off at 57th Street and 7th Avenue, right near Carnegie Hall itself.) When we entered the venue, I immediately bought a program which was like a Who's Who of those on the scene at that point in time. (It became something I read and re-read constantly for about a week, trying to absorb as much information as I could about the music.) Ultimately my friend and I headed to our box in the mezzanine area, where we both eagerly awaited the beginning of the concert. Finally, the MJQ came on the stage, dressed so neat and proper that they probably made some members of the audience feel underdressed. To be honest, however, even though I enjoyed their sophisticated but swinging chamber jazz, I didn't completely get it. After all, the jazz I'd heard most up to this time had been big band sides, Hamp shouting "Hey-Ba-Ba-Re-Bop" and Shearing playing "Lullaby of Birdland" with a vocal chorus. After the MJQ's section, Getz and Burton came out and my friend and I liked the combination of tenor sax and vibes, although once again I'm sure I missed much of what was going on. After 37 years I don't remember when or if there was an intermission, but I do remember that the last musicians to hit the stage were Pharoah Sanders and his band. I now know why they were chosen as the closing "act." The majority of the audience seemed to have come to Carnegie Hall to hear jazz that was familiar to them. After that was out of the way, it was time for those few with more adventurous tastes. When Sanders began playing my friend and I figured he was tuning up, since we didn't hear anything approximating a melody. My friend decided that would be a good time to go to the lobby for a smoke (not yet forbidden inside certain areas of theatres). I left our box with her (just so we could talk--I've never smoked even one cig) and the two of us discussed the music we'd already heard. Finally the cigarette was history and we went back to our seats. The tuning up hadn't turned into a recognizable melody yet and after about 15 minutes my friend and I realized it never would. That was our cue to head for home, since we knew this particular style of jazz was wayyyy over our heads.

I attended just one more jazz gig with that friend, a solo appearance in the 1980s by Joe Pass, at the long-defunct Lush Life in Greenwich Village. I kept on learning about the various styles of jazz and gradually developed an appreciation for all of them--well most of them anyway. (Kenny G and most smooth jazz is still something that could drive me screaming from any room where they're played.) However, free jazz is now something I enjoy, since I've learned how to really hear and understand what's going on. Ornette Coleman has become one of my favorite jazz artists and the Sun Ra Arkestra at Iridium one Halloween night was one of my most fun experiences at any jazz club. Kind of makes me wonder what would have happened if I'd been able to listen to 1972 live Pharoah Sanders with my 2009 jazz ears!


  1. Cha Cha,
    Great post. I am right there with you. I heard Ella Fitzgerald at Carnagie Hall three times. One was with the incomparable Joe Pass. Wish I knew you when I was a Jazz DJ at WPBX, Southampton College, LIU Radio Station. We would have swung the place down!

  2. There were riots in Newport? I grew up in a different world, I tell you. I wonder if we'll ever see days like that again. Never mind the days of all those jazz greats and clubs permeating the nightlife...

  3. Riots in Newport? Now that's a world I didn't see. Never mind missing the heyday of the jazz era...

  4. The riots were apparently because Wein allowed rock acts to be part of the Newport lineup. I think hippie types who had come just for the rock wanted to crash the festival for free.