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JAZZ REVIEW : Festival Ends With Show of Musicianship

September 08, 1993|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The 10th anniversary L.A. Classic Jazz Festival, which concluded Monday afternoon with an all-hands-on-deck three-hour jam session, was a far cry in size and complexity from the original running. The original director, Chuck Conklin, had mortgaged his house to get the festival launched. Then the host hotel had had to send to three other hotels in the chain for emergency rations to feed the unexpectedly large, and hungry, crowd. It was a prophecy of success.

Then and now, the festival is for many attendees an exercise in participatory nostalgia. The silver-haired jitterbugs at the front corners of the ballrooms dance now with more elegance than frenzy, but the moves are the moves of a half-century and more ago. The traditional bands consistently draw large and cheering throngs, and the corn is evergreen. A well-polished Benny Goodman tribute band led by clarinetist Peanuts Hucko drew a standing-room-only crowd Sunday night.

"What are we gonna do when this audience dies?" one musician asked another, listening in a packed hotel lobby lounge to the raucous anthems of Conrad Janis' Beverly Hills Unlisted Jazz Band.

Audiences for jazz abroad consistently cover a wider age spectrum. But the number of younger attendees at the Classic appears to be increasing each year, if slowly. There is even more evidence that the mainstream sound itself is being renewed by younger players. Three of the festival's scholarship winners performed at the final session, including a wizard pianist, Linda Martinez, who is 17, drummer Lamondo Watkins, 16, and vocalist Lena Park, 17.

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The hottest and most progressive band of the weekend was Maiden Voyage, the 16-piece assembly of young women, led by Ann Patterson on reeds and featuring Stacy Rowles on trumpet (one of several blazing soloists). The band, formed 13 years ago, played two long and hard-driving sets Sunday afternoon, its tonal and rhythmic complexities a long way from Basin Street but wildly applauded by sizable turnouts.

Pianist Johnny Varro's Swing Seven was another well-polished and notably popular group, playing Varro's intricate and fast-moving charts with echoes (deliberate) of the John Kirby sound and with a verve that also suggested the later West Coast sounds of Dave Pell and Marty Paitch.

First and last it is musicianship, not simply nostalgia, that sustains the festival and a century's worth of evolving jazz sounds. There was the work of the organized groups, one of them Dick Cary's Tuesday Night Band, playing his extraordinary tone poems such as "Sea of Cortez." But there were as well many memorable moments from the ad hoc interplay of great soloists.

From the senior spectrum, a meeting of pianist Ralph Sutton and bassist Milt Hinton produced dazzling work, as did a later set, called Bases Loaded, with Hinton joined by fellow bassists Bob Haggart, Morty Corb and David Stone (who is not yet half Hinton's age).

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Guitarist Howard Alden and clarinetist Ken Peplowsky, both in their 30s, did wonderful contrapuntal up-tempo versions of standards such as "Rose Room" that suggested Bach on Benzedrine. Alden and veteran guitarist George Van Eps did a duet session that in its quiet elegance has become a festival feature.

As always, the larger informal groupings, such as the Tommy Saunders-led Wild Bill Davison legacy, with the impeccable Chuck Hedges on clarinet, seem astonishing in the way the players put together arrangements on the spot, inventing chordal responses behind the soloists, agreeing with finger pointings on four-bar chase choruses, riding out in patterns that are well-used and familiar but that somehow keep sounding new-minted.

Part of the pleasure in hearing great musicians play is seeing the delight, and sometimes the amusement, they take in one another's flights of improvisation. There is appreciation on both sides of the microphones, and it is central to the continuing appeal of fine jazz.

The Classic, directed again by Chuck Conklin for the United Jazz Clubs of Southern California, experienced some temporary early glitches in sound and scheduling consequent to 300 musicians working in 11 venues. Given the complexities, it stayed remarkably on schedule.

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