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JAZZ REVIEW : Classic Fest Shifts to Center but Still Loves Tradition

September 06, 1993|LEONARD FEATHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Classic Jazz Festival, which began celebrating its 10th anniversary Friday and continues through today, has expanded on several levels over the years. It is now divided between two venues, the LAX-area Marriott and Westin hotels. According to producer Chuck Conklin, it involves more than 300 musicians and attracts up to 5,000 fans a day.

As was evident from the first day, the event has edged its way from the far right of the jazz spectrum to closer to the center. The hiring of such soloists as reedman Ken Peplowski and guitarist Howard Alden, whose appearances were Friday highlights, symbolized the acceptance by this mainly mature audience of a younger and more contemporary approach to the art of improvisation.

Still, tradition remains the keynote. Throughout the first two days it was easy to be plunged into a world where banjos outnumbered guitars; where a trumpeter lamented the passing of those good old days when Amos & Andy ruled the airwaves; and where the deceased were saluted in sets dedicated to Wild Bill Davison, Bob Crosby, Muggsy Spanier and John Kirby. A couple of the Marriott's six locations had dance floors, complete with glitter ball.

Creativity, rather than nostalgia, was the driving force behind the contributions of bassist Milt Hinton, this year's guest of honor, and trumpeter Yank Lawson, heard in a partial reunion of his World's Greatest Jazzband. Both are busy, thriving octogenarians.

In the same age bracket are George Van Eps, the swing-era guitarist with whom Howard Alden studied; and Herb Jeffries, to whom the years have been remarkably kind; his voice is richer and more assured these days than it was half a century ago with Duke Ellington's orchestra.

Most surprising was Spiegle Willcox, the trombonist, who turned 90 last May. Guesting in a generally excellent Bill Davison memorial set, he played with legato elegance, sang a song, and revealed that far from slowing down, he has just returned from a European tour. Asked to name his favorite rock group, he said: "Mount Rushmore."

Up from New Orleans is Lillian Boutte, who sings novelty songs with swinging good cheer, backed by her own band, which includes a first-rate trumpeter, Leroy Jones, whom she has borrowed from Harry Connick Jr. Vocally this is shaping up as a strong weekend, with Linda Hopkins cutting a swath from the blues to "Danny Boy" and the gospel tones of "Amazing Grace," and Rose Weaver, vocalist with Conrad Janis' Beverly Hills Unlisted Band, in a lovely, seldom-heard song called "Sisters," from "The Color Purple."

Among the many visiting jazzmen from overseas, Bob Barnard, a trumpeter from Australia, stood out in a loose yet cohesive group that included the always admirable Betty O'Hara on valve trombone.

One thing you learn here is not to be put off by the group names. A seven-piece band billed as the Flat Foot Stompers turned out to be a superior trad unit from Stuttgart, led by a fine British saxophonist, Peter Buhr.

It is true that some music of astounding mediocrity has been heard here--an antiquated multiple banjo ensemble comes painfully to mind--but since at any time there are up to 11 rooms from which to choose, the chances of coming up empty-eared are happily remote.

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