SAN DIEGO — The jazz party fever, a phenomenon that began 25 years ago when Dick Gibson staged the first event in Colorado, has reached Southern California.
Gibson himself was on hand to see his friend Bill Muchnic, a retired businessman and amateur trumpeter who had attended every Gibson party, throw a bash here in a ballroom at the Town & Country Hotel. With 500 fans paying $130 for a badge giving them access to 15 hours of music Saturday and Sunday, the success of the affair was ordained. It was announced early in January that the party was sold out.
Though Muchnic followed the Gibson formula, shuffling his jazz chessmen around every 45 minutes, he operated on a smaller scale. Last year in Denver, Gibson had more than 60 players. Aside from a few local participants who were afforded brief token appearances, Muchnic kept his cast down to 24.
This worked to the musicians' advantage, since they were heard more often; however, for the audience it meant a somewhat too rapid rotation. Moreover, instead of finding new talent, Muchnic simply drew on the usual pool: Aside from the excellent cornetist Ed Polcer, every one of the 24 has been a regular at the Gibson parties.
Idiomatically there was a slight tilt toward the traditional rather than the mainstream, let alone anything even minimally progressive.
A few questions arise: How many times can you listen to "Royal Garden Blues," "That's A-Plenty" and "In a Mellotone" after hearing them blown to death by the same people year in and decade out? It would do no harm if these veterans expanded their vocabulary. (Only two who took part, Scott Hamilton and John Clayton, are under 40.) But it is possible to teach old cats new tricks, or at least to abandon the tried-and-trite occasionally for the arcane and challenging.
When the cornetist Warren Vache played a seldom-heard Gershwin tune, "He Loves and She Loves," as a lyrical duet with Dick Hyman, the relief was almost palpable. Hyman, who has emerged as the logical successor to Art Tatum, was no less resourceful, applying his formidable technique and creative flow to a forgotten Fats Waller song, "Going to See My Ma."
The audience was not quite as enthusiastic as the typical Gibson crowd. Not until three hours into the Saturday session was there a standing ovation, when Bob Wilber on soprano sax and Kenny Davern on clarinet blended with Damon-and-Pythias perfection on a sneaky, loping blues. Wilber also offered one number as a tribute to Benny Goodman; trombonist Al Grey dedicated a solo to the memory of Al Cohn.
Two Angelenos, Snooky Young on trumpet and Marshal Royal on alto sax, seemed to lift up the mood whenever they were on the stand. Ralph Sutton's reading of Willie the Lion Smith's "Echoes of Spring" was a charming touch of lacy delicacy, though Gibson regulars may have been reminded of the memorable day when Smith himself performed it, backed by Duffy Jackson, a drummer young enough to be his grandson.
By the same token, when Peanuts Hucko revived "Memories of You," some of us thought back to the time when Eubie Blake himself played his own famous ballad in tandem with the trumpeter Jon Faddis, who was 70 years his junior. Because moments like this happen more by accident than planning, Muchnic could hardly be expected to distill such magic automatically.
Like Gibson, Muchnic made sparing use of guitars: Herb Ellis and Bucky Pizzarelli had their own solo and duo showcase Sunday, showing their self-sufficiency as well as a mutual ability to cook gently but firmly.
A few more questions arise. Why is the superb trombonist Bill Watrous convinced that he has to sing and whistle? His vocal effort could have been retitled "Here's That Shaky Day." And why does a technically admirable pianist like Paul Smith find it impossible even to get through a few choruses of the blues without throwing in bits from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"?
Drum solos were kept within reasonable limits. For the most part Butch Miles, Jake Hanna and Gus Johnson served as first-rate rhythm section functionaries.
Among the bassists (Clayton, Hinton and Bob Haggart), Clayton stood out with his classically virtuosic bowed rendition of "Nature Boy." Flip Phillips, Buddy Tate and Scott Hamilton shared the tenor sax honors, but Tate's attempt to double on clarinet fell a little flat. In short: few surprises, some disappointments but many delights. By next year (and Muchnic confirmed that this will be an annual event), perhaps he will have found ways to emerge from the giant Gibson shadow.