Jazz Builds a Home in the West

Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

What kind of year was it for jazz? Call it a rebuilding year, a period in which some interesting trends began to emerge, with the most intriguing developments taking place, appropriately, in the live-performance arena. Here are the combined Top 10 players, places and developments of the year.

First, the players:

1. The year's finest concert was pianist MARCUS ROBERTS' remarkable reinvention of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton in September. Roberts' rendering, with its enlivened sense of swing and open spaces for improvisation, transformed the "Rhapsody" into a living, breathing musical entity and provided an impressive display of the manner in which a talented jazz musician can expand the horizons of his art.

2. The local band of the year was bassist CHARLIE HADEN's QUARTET WEST, an ensemble whose reach extends well beyond the West Coast. Haden's thoughtful approach to programming combines with a lineup of first-rate players--saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist Alan Broadbent and drummer Larance Marable--to generate music that manages to be contemporary without losing its connection with the historic realities of jazz.

3. The player of the year was pianist KENNY BARRON, who is finally receiving some of the honors he has long deserved. In town several times, he performed in a number of settings. Each appearance was a revelation of how good jazz can get in the hands of a gifted artist whose entire focus is musical creativity.

Next, the places:

4. The Southland enhanced its status as a national jazz destination with two clubs, CATALINA BAR & GRILL and the JAZZ BAKERY. The Bakery continues to grow, improving its acoustics and scheduling an impressive series of bookings highlighted by saxophonist Branford Marsalis in December. With the House of Blues, Billboard Live and Orange County's Jazz Club at the Center adding occasional one- and two-nighters and an abundance of smaller rooms scheduling local players, the club scene was looking healthy.

5. JAZZ IN CONCERT was looking pretty good too. Although the Greek Theatre and the Universal Amphitheatre produced extremely light jazz listings, several arts centers--UCLA, Cerritos, Pepperdine, Orange County Performing Arts and Cal State L.A.'s Luckman complex among them--more than filled the gap. And Playboy, always a friend to jazz, extended the annual Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival into year-round programming with a series of stellar events at the Alex Theatre.

6. The West Coast made a major bid to become a significant player in the jazz festival sweepstakes with the SAN FRANCISCO JAZZ FESTIVAL in September, an impressive event that gets better every year. The festival's arrival as perhaps the most attractive jazz gala not just on the West Coast but anywhere in the country was buoyed by the intensely active local music scene. Virtually every part of the Bay Area has some kind of jazz action, and the younger players--with their desire to open the stylistic gates of jazz to every possible influence--are well on the way toward establishing San Francisco as a major jazz city.

Next, the developments:

7. BIG BANDS have been circling the jazz scene for a few years, but in 1996, the large, exciting ensembles once again began to move to the center of the performance arena. Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Jon Faddis' Carnegie Hall Ensemble and the Mingus Big Band all made impressive appearances. Yes, repertory programming and institutional support were the engines that drove most of the programs, but Joe Henderson's big-band album, as well as an expected big-band recording from Roy Hargrove, are only a few of the bits of evidence suggesting that a more extensive revival may be in the works. Now, if the Music Center will follow the Lincoln Center lead and start thinking about establishing its own jazz orchestra. . . .

8. Internationally, jazz voices were speaking out all over EUROPE. Large ensembles in the Netherlands and Germany, helped by government funding, are producing superb music, often backing American soloists. More important, European musicians, aware that there are no significant American influences to follow at the moment, are beginning to carve their own often unique expressions.

9. On the negative side, network JAZZ ON THE RADIO virtually disappeared from parts of the Southland in 1996 when KPCC-FM (89.3) changed format and abandoned its National Public Radio jazz programming--which included Marion McPartland's "Piano Jazz" and programs featuring both Wynton and Branford Marsalis. No other major station picked up the programs, leaving Los Angeles with nothing but local jazz programming.

10. And, finally, the PASSINGS: Two giant jazz figures and a number of less widely acknowledged artists died in 1996. Baritone saxophonist GERRY MULLIGAN, a profoundly influential player, composer and leader, died in January at 68. ELLA FITZGERALD, arguably one of the three most influential singers in jazz history, died in June at 78.

Among the others: producer Bob Thiele, responsible for some of John Coltrane's most remarkable sessions on Impulse, 73; Mercer Ellington, Duke Ellington's talented but underrated bandleader son, 76; tenor saxophonist Eddie Harris, whose early hits tended to obscure his abilities as an improviser, 62; and much-admired pianist Jimmy Rowles, 77.

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