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Classic Jazz '85 Sounds Like A Winner

September 05, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The tally will come in later, but I have to believe that the second annual Classic Jazz Festival, held here over the four days of Labor Day weekend, was a smashing success. The hotel ran out of parking early on, always a splendid sign, and there were standing-room-only crowds at many of the performances, an even more splendid sign.

There was music more or less simultaneously at eight different sites in the hotel, from the cocktail lounge at the top to the parkingramp outside the lower-level ballrooms. The leak-through of sounds from one adjoining ballroom to another was occasionally an annoyance, but I must say it added to the merry and tumultuous energy level.

Some of the groups majored in traditional Dixieland of the most Golden Bantam purity, a genre that Leonard Feather in his English days referred to rather tartly as "Mouldy Fygge." It was good-humored and very popular, and occasionally lit by solo work of considerable freshness and beauty.

But "classic," in fact, embraced a range of music, from Early New Orleans to Late Condon by way of Kansas City, Chicago and West Coast Lite. And one of several truths that grew evident over the weekend is that a new, young generation of musicians is choosing to play somewhere within that jazz spectrum.

Admittedly, re-creating the sounds of the past is by no means the same as inventing new ones. But the sheer virtuosity of the players in the Los Angeles group called the Rhythm Kings, for example, is flabbergasting.

They perform the fast and furious ricky-tick orchestrations the '20s roared to. They also do the wispy, melancholy mood pieces of the early Ellington recordings. Dick Randolph's cornet breaks recall Bix Beiderbecke, though it is fairer to say that he does his own inventions, in the Beiderbecke style.

The group's trappings, including the close harmony trio and a quartet of dancing flappers, are corny indeed, but the underlying musicianship is serious and wonderful.

Artie Shaw remarked not long ago on the disappearance of the clarinet from popular music, and only Woody Herman as a still-working bandleader celebrates it. In non-jazz idiom, and to an extent even in later jazz, it has been drowned out by the honking saxophones. Not least of the demonstrations last weekend was what a glorious instrument the clarinet is--and while we're at it, its cousin, the soprano saxophone (now virtually never heard outside traditional jazz).

Johnny Mince, a big band alumnus whose career began in 1929 and who played with Ray Noble and Tommy Dorsey, was one of the weekend's stars, a wizard technician with a ceaseless flow of jazz ideas. A session he did with two fine local clarinet men, Abe Most and Heinie Beau, was one of those you-should-have-been-there encounters that bring festivals alive.

Another was a quietly noodling confrontation of two great guitarists, George Van Epps and Dave Koonse, with Dick Cary backing them on the piano and on peck horn (also known as an upright alto). Not often is any music more melodically beautiful.

What I'm afraid is less clear on the evidence of the weekend is whether a new, young generation of listeners to classic jazz is also developing. The median age at the Airport Marriott had to be north of 50, and in some lively cases well north but still able to do a mean turn on the dance floor. There seemed to be more young women than young men; many of them may have been attached to the young musicians. But it was hard not to feel there was a missing generation, too little aware of what all it really was missing.

It was for the majority of the very large turnout a nostalgia trip to a kind of music associated with their own young days, and they listened with blissful pleasure. But it was not simply an escape into the past, or so I felt; it was a reminder of the artistry and the excellence that there was in that past.

What was made obvious by the presence of the likes of Mince, Van Epps, Eddie Miller, Bud Freeman and others was that we rightly admired giants in those days. The music, upbeat and blues, arose close to our lives, at least as close as a different music does to present young audiences.

But we weren't wrong to think that what we heard was excellent, and remains so.

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