Most people who have listened to jazz for very long have a list in their minds of the best live performances they’ve ever been to. I know I do. I remember with particular fondness a performance by Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson that I saw in the early 1980s in Modesto, California that was a benefit for local jazz musician and DJ Mel Williams’s Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation. It wasn’t so much that it was a groundbreaking concert as such–though I still remember how tight and in-the-pocket his band swung–but it was one of the first I ever went to.
As a kid in California’s Central Valley, an agricultural backwater at the time, I didn’t have that many chances to hear live jazz, and it was a revelation. I remember equally fondly seeing Johnny Griffin at Birdland in New York, when I was doing research for my first book, Monk’s Music (University of California Press, 2008). I had dug Griff on vinyl since I was in high school, and to see that band take the stage and hear him—old by then, but still brimming with intensity–burn through two sets of serious hard bop felt a little like coming home.
And most people who go see jazz regularly will tell you that the particular features of the venues where jazz happens color their experiences in tangible ways. For me, The Village Vanguard when it’s full has a kind of electricity that comes from the tight seating and the quality of the light in its cramped little basement space, as well as from its storied past. Sitting cheek-by-jowl with a couple hundred other fans to hear jazz in dim twilight in the same room where John Coltrane once played has a power that can’t be overstated. And being so close to the musicians in a room which has crisp acoustics doesn’t hurt, either.
These features and more make it common for jazz fans to feel that club dates are the best — or even the most authentic — way to hear the music. And yet, concerts, whether they be in monumental halls originally designed for classical music or in the purpose-built, often open-air spaces used for jazz festivals, have been an important context for the music as well. Since the 1920s jazz has been presented in these settings, often to truly great effect. As I say in my book on the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane’s live recording at Carnegie Hall, while clubs may offer certain pleasures for musicians–a more interactive, intimate experience especially–concerts have had their value as well. Better pay, typically, for one, but also the opportunity to present their musical ideas in more formal venues.
I’ve seen some great jazz performances at clubs and in concerts, but still, sometimes, I wonder if I didn’t grow up at the wrong time, in the wrong place. There’s just so much I never had the chance to hear — Monk at the Five Spot, Coltrane at the Village Vanguard, Billie Holiday at Café Society, Ellington anywhere … With that in mind, here are five jazz concerts I wish I had seen, in no particular order:
5. Newport Jazz Festival, 1956
To have been at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 to hear Ellington’s band play the set that included “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” would have been, as the beatniks used to say, “beyond the beyond.”
Duke Ellington Orchestra at Newport 1956, “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue,” separated, as Ellington puts it, “by an interval by Paul Gonsalves”
The story is well-enough known to jazz aficionados, that Ellington’s star was on the wane, and that this concert was a way back for them, that on this tune Gonsalves took a solo that was a standard part of the show and turned it into a 27-chorus blues tour-de-force, inspired by a woman in a little black dress who danced and danced and danced while he blew. What else is jazz but that?
I would have worn my groovy fedora, some high-waisted white slacks, combed Brylcreem through my hair and dug every minute of it.
4. Weather Report in Tokyo, 1972
Weather Report’s work, by the later 1970s, includes some pretty dispiriting instrumental pop, but in 1972, Zawinul, Shorter, and company made some music that was vital, and living somewhere on the edge of experimental funk, avant garde noise, and deep groove.
Medley of “Vertical Invader,” “Seventh Arrow,” “T.H.,” and “Doctor Honoria Causus,” from the live recording Weather Report Live in Tokyo
Recordings of this music can only begin to capture its range. Even on high fidelity equipment, the silences are not as heavy as they would have been in the concert hall, not as pregnant with expectation, and the band at full volume is not as overwhelming. In some sense jazz performances are always a bit of a ritual, but this seems like an immersive experience of another level.
3. The Clef Club Orchestra, Massed Gala 1912 and 1913
Under the leadership of James Reese Europe, the Clef Club orchestra played at some of the best private dances New York society had in the early years of the 20th century, but they also presided over at least two “massed galas” in Carnegie Hall in the years 1912 and 1913. While Europe’s bands as they were recorded around the time included fewer than a dozen musicians, an image of the full group on stage at Carnegie Hall has better than fifty. The excitement generated by the group’s sheer size and its range of instruments including cellos, harp-guitars, drums, brass, and who knows what is born out in descriptions from the time that emphasize spectacle.
James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, “The Castle Walk,” 1914
Somehow the recordings we know Europe by just don’t seem like they do justice …
2. Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall
I’ve written about Monk for so many years now, it is a particular sadness to say I never saw him play. Our lives overlapped a bit–I had just turned 10 when he died–but he had stopped playing in public for the most part by the time I was born, and even if he had been playing, he wouldn’t likely have played where I was.
I would love to have seen him play with any of his groups, but there was something special about that band and that night in November, 1957.
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane, “Monk’s Mood”
It’s not just that the band gave a brilliant performance–though they did. It’s more. As I say at some length in my book on this concert recording, the selection of tunes is great, the chance to hear Coltrane working out a sound in relation to Monk’s established style is a treat, and there is something brilliant about the way Shadow Wilson and Ahmed Abdul-Malik come together to underpin the whole event.
Though only Monk’s set was released on CD, I would love to have had the chance to hear this performance in context with the rest of the groups on that evening’s remarkable bill, including Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, Zoot Sims, Sonny Rollins.
1. Newport Jazz Festival 1969, Final Night
OK, so technically this wasn’t necessarily, strictly speaking, a jazz concert, as such, but I would kill to have been at the NJF the night Miles Davis famously saw Led Zeppelin drive the kids wild. This is another one that is well-known and the stuff of legend, but everything about it would have felt like a lightening bolt at the time. Would Zeppelin play or wouldn’t they? Promoter George Wein was convinced that they would start a riot, but after some controversy, they did close an evening that also included Herbie Hancock’s sextet, and the Buddy Rich band, among others.
We often hear about Zeppelin in this story, but the whole festival was kind of incredible. The British rock band played at the end of a weekend that included George Benson, Bill Evans, Sun Ra’s Arkestra, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck, Sly and the Family Stone, and Jimmy Smith hosting a jam session that included Sonny Stitt and Ray Nance, among others.
So maybe I was born too soon. Though, in the past month I’ve had my head expanded by Vijay Iyer’s trio, by William Parker, and by the Bad Plus, all in the little college town in East Central Illinois where I live, so perhaps it’s all just fine.