The Benny Goodman Memorial Festival began Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl. That, of course, was not the official title of the eighth annual Playboy extravaganza, but there were several reminders above and beyond the fact that Playboy had announced the dedication of the festival to the memory of Goodman, who died Friday.
Tapes of Goodman's music were played continuously while the crowd filed in, all reaching an artistic level too seldom attained by the live music that followed. Among the performers were the four singers known as Rare Silk, first heard here as a trio at the second festival when Goodman introduced them as his protegees in 1980. Later Mel Torme offered an eloquent tribute to the swing maestro.
It is doubtful that anything heard Saturday would have appealed much to that master of sensitivity and swing, except for the big band sounds of Rob McConnell and the infallible vocals of Torme backed by McConnell's orchestra and arrangements.
That McConnell got his message across was remarkable in view of the audience's behavior. The same crowd that had roared approval of a dismally sterile set by saxophonist George Howard (with emcee Bill Cosby sitting in) and an even duller, more rigid set by the Yellowjackets, chatted endlessly through McConnell's splendid performance.
This Canadian band, known as the Boss Brass, is equally strong in every department: creative writing (most of it by the leader), impeccable interpretation and half a dozen first-rate soloists.
As his announcements made clear, McConnell was uncomfortably aware of the situation. Typically, a superbly subtle guitar solo by Ed Bickert received no applause.
Torme, backed by the McConnell ensemble, brought the noise level down in a set drawn entirely from a forthcoming album he recorded with the 22-man band. Torme's masterful control was in evidence particularly during the ballads "September Song" and "A House Is Not a Home." A tongue-in-chops version of "Cow Cow Boogie" found two trumpeters doubling on harmonica and violin.
The Duke Ellington medley, composed of all the most obvious tunes, was diffuse and rambling. Torme ended with "I Hear Music," changing the lyrics to refer to his remembrance of Goodman, and ending wittily with a quote from Monk's "I Mean You."
Rare Silk has changed so radically that Goodman might have disowned it had he heard its new character. Perhaps the engineer was to blame, and possibly also the drummer, but the group was almost drowned out at times by its musicians, leaving most of the lyrics unintelligible. The silk has turned to rawhide.
Miles Davis, sporting fuchsia lame pants and an eight-piece band, played well with some inspired moments that transcended the predictable setting.
There were quite a few mellow, muted passages, and even a brief reference to "Milestones." However, one should no more expect Davis to stay connected to his past than look for him to give up flying jets and take the A Train. Among his side men, Bob Berg on saxes and Robben Ford on guitar were heard from in a long, generally well organized performance.
The afternoon opened with a brisk, brief outing by the Cal State Long Beach University Band, directed by John Prince. As so often happens with youth bands, the ensembles were more impressive than the solos.
Producer George Wein followed, playing agreeable Hines-Wilson-Waller piano and leading his Newport All Stars in a musicianly small-group swing set.
Warren Vache's cornet on "Over the Rainbow" suggested a fuller-toned Bobby Hackett; Norris Turney on alto sax and Harold Ashby on tenor, both Ellington alumni, kept the creative spark glowing.
Aside from one sax player, nobody listed for the Art Blakey Jazz Messengers showed up--not even Blakey himself, who had missed his plane. Oliver Jackson and Slam Stewart, the drummer and bassist from Wein's group, played with four men who are presumably Blakey's latest front line. Good trumpet by Wallace Roney and piano by Donald Brown relieved a generally lackluster jam session.
The closing act, Andrae Crouch with his gospel group (six singers, five instrumentalists) provided an infectious confection of gospel, rock rhythms and jazz--an intriguing intertwining of roots and branches.
Directing and singing and occasionally playing piano, with his sister Sandra helping out in the percussion department, Crouch soon had hundreds of his congregation (a capacity house of 17,859) dancing and shouting and singing along.
Sunday's show will be reviewed Tuesday.