MUSICIANS ARE THE LIFE OF THE GIBSONS’ PARTY
In the summer of 1963, Dick and Maddie Gibson decided that Denver was a fine place to live except for one problem: They were starved for jazz. Gibson, a 38-year-old ex-Marine from Mobile, Ala., had been working here for three years as an investment banker. Many of the Gibsons’ new friends, they soon learned, felt similarly deprived.
They rented a hotel room in Aspen, Colo., hired 10 of their favorite jazzmen and treated Denver’s hip elite, at $50 a person, to a solid weekend of improvised sounds. It worked so well, with 212 aficionados on hand, that the Gibsons decided to make it an annual affair. The jazz party was born, with results beyond its parents’ wildest dreams.
Last weekend, the 24th annual Gibson bash--held, as always, during the Labor Day holiday--illustrated the growth of his modest concept. Instead of 10 musicians there were 63, some arriving from England and Denmark. The guests (no longer just Coloradans, they fly in from a dozen countries) numbered about 600, the maximum allowed, each paying $210 for the privilege of hearing 30 hours of music over 56 hours.
What Gibson has spawned is a sort of cottage industry. Today, there are at least 47 jazz parties all over the country, as well as ones in Holland and Jamaica. Gibson hires the musicians for 14 of them, and most of the others employ what he likes to refer to as “our musicians.” His 1963 brainstorm has generated millions of dollars for the performers and has created for them an ambiance unlike any to be found at the more formalized theatrical concerts or festivals.
After a roller-coaster life as a businessman, Gibson devotes his time almost exclusively to jazz. He and Maddie stage half a dozen jazz concerts a year at the local Paramount Theater. They are major shareholders in radio station KADX, which they and 16 other partners took over in 1984 and converted to an all-jazz policy.
Gibson’s party formula allows great latitude to his charges, most of whom he now knows as personal friends rather than employees. They arrive not knowing the full cast details, or whom they will be playing with during which sets. Although Gibson runs a very tight ship, juggling his people around like a master puppeteer, once on the bandstand in the Grand Ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel (where the last five annual parties have been), they are essentially on their own, at least in terms of what to play. Though given a schedule showing who will be the featured soloists, they use no arrangements and, with rare exception, no music stands; Gibson’s idea of jazz is the kind that comes straight from the heart, not from manuscript paper.
This is, however, no nostalgia trip. “Most of our men,” he said, “are eclectics who, in the spirit of the party’s great fluidity, will fit into a traditional or swing or bebop setting.” Typical among the world-class names this year are trumpeters Sweets Edison, Joe Newman, Bill Berry, Snooky Young; trombonists Al Grey, Benny Powell, Urbie Green; saxophonists Georgie Auld, Flip Phillips, Benny Carter, Marshal Royal, Pete Christlieb, Phil Woods; clarinetists Peanuts Hucko and Dick Johnson (leader of the Artie Shaw band); pianists Roger Kellaway, Ross Tompkins, Jay McShann; bassists Bob Haggart, Ray Brown, Milt Hinton; drummers Ed Thigpen, Butch Miles, Gus Johnson, and guitarists Bucky Pizzarelli and his son John.
Of the 63 players, 10 were first-timers. Two--pianist Ralph Sutton and bassist Major Holley--took part in the first jam in 1963. To a growing degree, the party is a family reunion. You see it in the bear hugs exchanged by New York and Los Angeles musicians (“Long time, no see”), the socializing among musicians’ wives (this year, no less than 45 jazzmen brought their wives along), the taking and showing of photographs. Gibson encourages the feeling with unbusinesslike gestures: typically, his personal guests this year included Louise Sims, whose late husband Zoot was a party regular, and Eddie (Lockjaw) Davis, who has been battling cancer and was under doctor’s orders not to play. In the weekend’s most poignant moment, Davis borrowed a horn and played with amazing vigor on the final number of the closing session Monday evening. He received an overwhelming ovation.
As always, the weekend was interspersed with standing ovations, most of them justified. Gene Harris, who lives in Boise, Ida., played blues piano as if he had just arrived from New Orleans. Joe Pass and Herb Ellis, reunited for the first time in a decade, turned their guitar virtuosity into a rare display of empathy and inspiration. Trombonists Urbie Green and Bill Watrous interacted subtly on “When Your Lover Has Gone.” George Chisholm, the English trombonist, told an off-color joke but followed with a superb solo on “Just Friends.”
Every year there is a surprise, perhaps an unannounced singer (Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan) or even an entire band. Because he had booked drummer Frank Capp, pianist Nat Pierce and most of the members of Juggernaut, the band they co-lead, a few ringers were added and Juggernaut played a blustering Basie-inspired set (plus an Ellington medley by their singer Ernie Andrews) that had the room in an uproar.
The man behind all this looks less like a jazz promoter than a former football star, which he is. Gibson joined the Marines at 17, was seriously injured in the South Pacific and spent nine months in a hospital. “When I got out, they discharged me to die--I was down to 127 pounds. But I refused to die, got back up to 175, and went to the University of Alabama on a football scholarship.”
The years have brought him up to 249 pounds; at 6-feet-1 1/2, he is still an imposing figure.
Looking back over the party years, he takes special pride in having brought out of retirement such veterans as the late Joe Venuti, whose violin graced many of the parties held in Colorado Springs during the 1970s; vibraphonist Red Norvo and singer Maxine Sullivan.
“Of all the magic moments the parties have produced,” he said, “the one that stands out in my mind is Eubie Blake’s appearance with trumpeter Jon Faddis in 1976. Eubie was 93, and John had been born when Eubie was 70. The duet they played of Eubie’s song ‘Memories Of You’ was spellbinding.”
Ironically, although the occasion was preserved on film, the feature-length documentary shot during that party has never been released to the public, not even in the form of videos. “It won an award at the Canadian Film Festival,” Gibson said, “and we heard that it had more screenings than any other film at a festival in London. In spite of which, we don’t have a sale, and the negative is still in a vault. A very frustrating experience.”
The pre-eminent ingredient at the jazz parties is talent, often bordering on genius. As Gibson points out, such commodities are in increasingly short supply; consequently, the average age of the players has risen. “Our musicians are not just excellent performers; they are great individualists, and unfortunately a large percentage of them have died off. We’ve lost not only men like my close friend Teddy Wilson, the great saxophonist Budd Johnson, the trombonists Trummy Young and Vic Dickenson, but also the world that produced them.
Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs, youthful performers who refuse to be branded with the cliches of the moment. Typically, at this year’s party, bassist John Clayton, who has played in the Count Basie band and for five years with the Amsterdam Symphony, offered an astonishing display of virtuosity. The tenor sax of Scott Hamilton, the sensitive drumming of Jeff Hamilton (no relation), the guitar of the younger Pizzarelli in duets with his father, all revealed last weekend that jazzmen in their 20s or early 30s can absorb the roots and expand on the traditions of the music.
The trouble is that such men are exceptions here. Sunday, when Scott Hamilton blended with three other tenor saxes for a few tunes, the others--Al Cohn, Buddy Tate and Bob Cooper--were all old enough to be his father.
Though Dick Gibson is not a deliberately nonprofit person, much of what he has done over the last 23 years has had little to do with the way most businessmen work. He has been rich and he has been poor; he does not expect jazz to make him a millionaire, but he knows it has enriched his life in many special ways. Impresario types, not only in jazz but in all the arts, could learn from many aspects of his modus operandi .