Now in its fifth year, the Los Angeles Classic Jazz Festival, embracing Labor Day weekend from Friday noon through a monster all-star jam session late Monday afternoon, has become a monumental and unusually well-organized enterprise.
This time the festival presented approximately 250 musicians playing 420 hours of jazz at 10 venues in two airport-area hotels. The festival's founder-director, Chuck Conklin, estimated that by festival's end as many as 25,000 attendees--a record--will have escaped the heat to hear hot jazz.
The "classic" rubric embraces a century's worth of styles, going back to the delicate traceries of cakewalks and early rags charmingly played by the Palm Leaf Ragtime Band. The strict-time, violin-flavored sounds of "Red Wing" and "The Pacific Electric Trolley Rag" were curiously refreshing, palate-cleansers amid the surrounding thunders.
Nostalgia is a major ingredient of the weekend and traditional Dixieland still predominates, numerically, among the bands.
And as it has grown, the festival has become more than a two-step down memory lane. It has offered a new generation of players, performing to a widening audience of younger listeners.
There were some major discoveries this year: a 24-year-old tenor sax player from Vienna named Christian Plattner; an English trombonist, Roy Williams, and an agile young American guitarist, Howard Alden.
Williams arrived to play as a guest artist with a traditional (and rather perfunctory) group, the East Berlin All-Stars, but he was quickly spotted and added to several other contemporary sessions. His lyrical and imaginative flights were many kilometers from the smears and slides of tailgate tromboning. One jazz veteran compared Williams to the legendary Bill Harris of the Woody Herman band.
Plattner, dapper in a necktie and white ice cream suit among the casual locals, was one of the weekend's busiest sidemen, working in various groups that included pianists Johnny Varro and Eddie Higgins, trumpeters Jack Sheldon and the veteran Yank Lawson, Mahlon Clark on clarinet and Jackie Coon on fluegelhorn.
Plattner's technical facility and his apparently inexhaustible flow of melodic ideas at any tempo were quite extraordinary. It was possible to imagine Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young (all detectable as shaping influences) looking down from somewhere beyond the last coda and saying, "That's our boy."
Alden's cool, acoustic-guitar sound, alternating quick chords and wonderfully liquid single-note runs, recalls Joe Pass in its elegant sureness. He is a Californian, born in Newport Beach, who worked with Red Norvo and has lived in New York since 1982.
For the nostalgists, there were 21 groups present, including such repeat favorites as Wally Holmes' Yankee Wailers from Santa Monica, the Golden Eagle Jazz Band from Pasadena with its prima blues singer, Chris Norris, and banjoist Bob Ringwald's Great Pacific Jazz Band.
Devotees could hear "Sugar," "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" and "Beale Street Blues" about as often as they cared to.
Probably the most popular, and the slickest, of the Dixie groups is Banu Gibson and her New Orleans Hot Jazz Orchestra. The auburn-haired Gibson is a quick-witted comedienne and a full-speed- ahead singer whose young and well-rehearsed sidemen play charts that owe more to Vegas lounges than to Preservation Hall.
One of the hottest festival favorites, drawing standing-room-only crowds to the largest hotel ballrooms, was clarinetist Pete Fountain, playing at the top of his form with various ad hoc all-star groups.
Another favorite--like Fountain, a repeat from last year--was a big band organized by another clarinetist, Abe Most, and playing tributes to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. The arrangements were familiar; the solo work by, among others, Most, his brother Sam on tenor, pianist Ray Sherman, Al Viola on guitar and Gene Estes on vibes, was fresh and invigorating.
Drummer Jack Sperling set a fierce pace for "Sing, Sing, Sing." Martha Tilton, a half-century after she recorded with Goodman, did some agelessly perky reprises of her tunes.
A welcome innovation this year was a piano room, a relatively small space devoted to a succession of solo pianists. Notable among them were stride man Vinnie Armstrong and Patrick Gogerty, who plays Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton with a lightness of touch that reminds you what an injustice the ricky-tick approach does to the subtleties of ragtime.
It was a festival that spanned generations as well as style. Not least it proved that the hot jazz impulse does not cool down with age. Yank Lawson, 77, led some wonderfully hard-driving sets and remains a fast, powerful and lyrical player. He traded choruses with Jackie Coon (whom he calls "The Aga Coon") in a Saturday encounter that was one of the weekend's magical times.
Another senior swinger, guitarist George Van Eps, 75, who played with Goodman and other big bands, contributed eloquent solos to several festival groups.
The most senior of the players on view was, I think, the indefatigable Wild Bill Davison, 82, who is heading out for another European tour in late September. After a shaky start Friday night when he had a temporary lip problem, Davison hit full power on the weekend and his laser tones were rattling ice cubes all over the hotels.
One of the true pleasures of a festival, as opposed to a jazz concert, is the chance to be reminded how sheerly beautiful certain kinds of jazz can be. The improvised interplay of horns on a lovely song has a quiet richness like nothing else.
There is as well the pleasure of observing the delight great musicians take in each other's work. To see Jackie Coon watch with a reverent grin as Yank Lawson invents a chorus; to note the sideman leaning over the piano to look as Johnny Varro does some rippling finger work; to detect the players miming applause for another's chorus--this is jazz, too.
A whole weekend of the music is exhausting but somehow it is not satiating. It was possible to come away with a sense that the form was renewing itself, and maybe renewing its listeners as well.