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JAZZ REVIEW : Notes of Freedom Ring at Gibson’s Jazz Party in Denver

There was one striking difference between Dick Gibson’s 26th annual jazz party, which ended here Monday evening, and the two overlapping jazz events in Los Angeles.

Unlike the practically all-white Classic Jazz Festival at the Marriott, and the virtually all-black “L.A. Jazz ’88" events, the Gibson bash was thoroughly integrated; by chance rather than design, among the 52 sets during 32 hours of playing time, all but a couple were by interracial groups.

One reason could be that the Gibson affairs cover the jazz spectrum from traditional to swing to bop and beyond.

The “beyond” may take the form of one of Roger Kellaway’s more periscopic piano explorations, Ray Brown’s phenomenal bass solo on “Samb de Orfeu,” or Lew Tabackin’s vivid statements on the state of the tenor sax art.

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Freedom is the keynote in Colorado: freedom from thralldom to synthesizers, electronics, written arrangements, New Age, and whatever else conflicts with the taste of Dick and Maddie Gibson.

Among the 59 handpicked musicians, who occupied the bandstand in the chandeliered ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, changing partners at 45-minute intervals in an infinite number of permutations, there were five first-timers: John Frigo, the astonishing 71-year-old violinist from Chicago; Harold Ashby, the ex-Ellington tenor saxophonist; Bruno Carr, the Denver-based drummer; Lou Soloff, a trumpeter who has proved that working as a New York studio musician doesn’t ruin your jazz chops; and Dan Barrett, a Pasadena-born trombonist who bore out one of two conflicting theories the party seemed to prove.

One theory is that musicians in their 20s and 30s have either failed to capture the essence of pure jazz or have been seduced by fusion. In addition to Barrett, 32, there was Joe Cohn, 31, the guitarist son of the late saxophonist Al Cohn, who was a party regular for many years; John Clayton, the 36-year-old bassist whose credits include the Count Basie Band and five years with the Amsterdam Symphony; drummer Duffy Jackson, 35, son of bassist Chubby Jackson (“I last played the party when I was 17, and I made such a big impression that they brought me back 18 years later”), and Australian whiz kid James Morrison, who at 25 has mastered more instruments than he can carry, from trumpet and trombone to euphonium and alto sax.

If these relative youngsters show that the torch is being passed along, another point is made chez Gibson: Maturity is a root to betterment.

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Most of the giants of yesteryear are playing with at least as much creative power as they were decades ago. Eight of this year’s participants are over 70; many are in their 50s or 60s. (Gibson has pointed out the vital need for younger men to carry the tradition forward; of the 226 artists heard at the 25 previous parties, 26 have died.)

If the three days included the customary quota of lingua-franca standard songs, there were occasional surprises. Frigo chose to play “Estrellita” as an almost unadorned violin solo. Dick Hyman and Roger Kellaway, in a stunning piano duet, took “Swinging on a Star” off into the wild atonal blue yonder.

Joe Williams, surrounded by fellow Basie alumni (Marshal Royal, Sweets Edison, Al Grey, Milt Hinton), was an electrifying form as he devoted part of his blues roundup to the lyrics of the late Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson.

Benny Carter’s alto sax solo Saturday evening was “Memories of You,” an exquisite dedication to his first major employer, Horace Henderson, the pianist and composer who died in Denver last week.

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Still another tribute was “My Buddy,” played during the noon to 11:10 p.m. Labor Day marathon by Spike Robinson for a fellow tenor sax giant, Buddy Tate, who was at the party as a guest but was not supposed to perform until he is fully recovered from open-heart surgery.

At his insistence, however, he did get to play, and beautifully, the two final numbers on Monday night.

As always, the party was as much a social as a musical affair, where East (Joe Newman, Phil Woods, Bob Wilber, Kenny Davern, Dave McKenna, Scott Hamilton) meets West (Snooky Young, Bill Berry, Red Holloway, Ross Tompkins, Jeff Hamilton) to enjoy what is for many a once-a-year chance to stretch out in fresh and stimulating company.

Where in Los Angeles could Plas Johnson be inspired to play “Jumpin’ in the Blues” with Kansas City’s own Jay McShann supplying the blues-drenched piano and his unique nasal vocal? Where but in Denver can Oklahoma’s Barney Kessel and New York’s Bucky Pizzarelli establish their two-guitarist empathy?

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And who but Gibson would fly trombonist George Chisholm from England for his annual chance to jam with Flip Phillips and Ralph Sutton? Or bring in the expatriate drummer Ed Thigpen from Copenhagen to team up with old friends?

The party cost the Gibsons $143,000. The charge for attending the five long sessions was $240, predicated on the assumption that if all 600 available places were sold it would break even.

But the final figure was 574 paid admissions; thus, the loss of more than $6,000.

Gibson started something that has snowballed into 54 competitive spin-off jazz parties, held by other promoters who may have cut into his own tick.

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He is left with the pleasure of hearing his favorite world-class musicians; this is the true prophet that has continued for more than a quarter of a century to put him ahead of the game.


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