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JAZZ

A Festive Family Reunion

September 20, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

DENVER — Jazz festivals during the past decade have become a round-the-world, almost round-the-clock phenomenon. The summer season just ended has seen scores of them come and go, some boasting of the great number of musicians (sometimes as many as 1,000) and many claiming to represent a total picture of the jazz scene, from traditional to avant-garde.

There is, however, one event that manages, without any such impressive claims or figures, to maintain a personal character, on a more intimate level, that has made it the favorite venue for its participants. This is the annual jazz party staged here by Maddie and Dick Gibson, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a three-day bash.

Not a single organized band played here. In fact, starting at noon Saturday, every 45 minutes during some 32 hours spread over three days, a different group appeared, drawn from a pool of 70 world-class musicians.

The joy of the party lies in its diversity. Dick Gibson is both a gourmet and a master chef, who may serve up, at any time during this 40-course banquet, anything from a quiet guitar duet by Joe Pass and Herb Ellis to a roaring set by a 17-piece orchestra, selected from the pool by the bassist John Clayton and using his arrangements.

The social and musical values overlap now more intimately than ever, because most of the participants are multiple repeaters. Of the 70 players, 37 brought their wives. Pianist Ralph Sutton, bassist Major Holley and drummer Bert Dahlander played at the first party, held in Aspen in 1963.

This reporter, having attending the last 17 events, has seen the jazzmen grow gray, plump, bald, unmarried and remarried, but not one has lost the creative power that brought him here originally. Of the 221 musicians hired by the Gibsons, 40 have died, but widowed friends like Mrs. Zoot Sims and Mrs. Trummy Young still attend.

Two first-time invitees this year were also the youngest players: Howard Alden, 28, a fast-rising guitarist who brought luminous new beauty to the old Billie Holiday hit "Some Other Spring," and James Morrison, an Australian who recently moved from Sydney to New York, who astonished everyone, playing multiphonics on the trombone, then alternating phrases on trumpet and trombone. Beyond doubt, he is tomorrow's jazz superstar.

At 24, Morrison is young enough to be the great-grandson of Doc Cheatham, who has preserved his trumpet technique and lyricism well into his 83rd year. Cheatham's perennial party piece is also his vocal specialty, "Manhattan," to which he sang four choruses of lyrics, two of which he says were added by Milton Berle.

Two other Cheathams, unrelated to Doc, were on hand as surprise guests. Jeannie Cheatham, the blues singer and pianist from San Diego, with her husband Jimmy, who plays bass trombone, sustained the blues mood that has been an underlying motif during much of the party.

Playing determined, rolling piano, a striking figure in her cherry red gown, Jeannie Cheatham sang "Cherry Red" and some of her own home-brewed blues with an ad hoc band that included three Angelenos--Snooky Young on trumpet, Red Holloway and Plas Johnson on saxes--and three Easterners, among them Kenny Davern, who was in Pee Wee Russell heaven on clarinet.

These men backed and filled and stomped and riffed, distilling enough dirty, greasy, nasty, funky blues to take us back to Kansas City with their speak-easy beat. The 45-minute blues rampage climaxed as musicians and crowd sang along with the Cheathams in their best-known song, "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On."

The blues reared its head again, or rather its four hands, when Jay (Hootie) McShann and Ralph Sutton dug in deep for a two-piano outing that drew one of the party's most impassioned ovations. They were among 11 pianists invited this year, enabling Gibson to do what jazz promoters normally lack the manpower to do: McShann, Monty Alexander, Gene Harris and Ross Tompkins, Roland Hanna and Paul Smith all soloed at the keyboard seriatim.

Another unlikely encounter was a saxophone battle royal involving Al Cohn, Buddy Tate, Scott Hamilton, Bob Cooper, Bud Shank and Red Holloway. A Sunday evening highlight found eight trombonists on board for an exchange of blues views. Harry (Sweets) Edison of Los Angeles and Joe Newman of New York were reunited, reviving "Shiny Stockings" as they did it in the Count Basie band. (There were 14 Basie alumni at this year's party.)

Comedy relief is always an occasional presence. George Chisholm, a nonpareil British trombonist who flies in every year, interspersed his solos with anecdotes about his London recording date with Fats Waller. Marty Grosz, son of the artist George Grosz, also invoked Waller, imitating his vocals and accompanying himself on acoustic guitar in an oddly antiquated interlude.

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