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At Dueling Weekend Fests, High Spirits, Small Crowds

JAZZ REVIEW

September 03, 1996|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The great Labor Day weekend battle of the Los Angeles jazz festivals appears to have ended in a draw. The L.A. Classic, in its 13th year, and the new Sweet & Hot Music Festival played their hearts out from Friday afternoon through Monday afternoon at airport hotels a half-mile apart. Both lost money on sharply diminished attendance from a year ago, when the Classic had the two hotels to itself. But the leaders of both festivals indicated they would have them again next year.

John Dieball, the Orange County businessman who took over the ailing and debt-ridden Classic, said the final decision to continue would be made Oct. 1 but was confident that the answer would be yes. He estimated reservations were off 40% from 1995. Wally Holmes, the founding director of the Sweet & Hot, agreed that reservations were light, but said that advance bookings for 1997 were booming. Holmes said he has already signed some artists for next year.

The musical menu was virtually the same at both festivals, a mix of traditional Dixie-flavored groups, big bands, special attractions like gospel singers Sunday morning and ragtime songster Ian Whitcomb, and ad hoc gatherings of all-star instrumentalists. The majority of patrons stayed put at the festival of their choice, although some of the musicians snuck away to sit in with pals at the competing festival. The Classic had patrons wear wristbands as well as badges to prevent badge-swapping between festivals.

Attendance seemed roughly equal. The Les Brown band on Saturday and Steve Allen on Sunday drew 1,000-plus crowds at the Classic. Abe Most and a big band playing Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman charts filled the ballroom at the Sweet & Hot on Saturday.

For the faithful whose musical preferences began with Scott Joplin and stopped just before bop, the menus were right on. Yet one of the weekend's remarkable debuts (at the Sweet & Hot) was Byron Stripling, a towering and powerful trumpet player, who has been compared to a later Louis Armstrong but whose lightning runs and startling intervals are right out of bop. When he played in a group with the great stride pianist Ralph Sutton, the effect was of an abbreviated history of jazz in two choruses.

Another debut at the Sweet & Hot was a local group, Brad Kay and the Young Curmudgeons, whose inspiration is in the small groups of the '30s but whose players--notably Dan Levinson on reeds and Dan Weinstein on violin and trombone--transcend period. Kay, a wizard pianist, plays well-shaking stride, but then shows the angular power and unpredictability of Thelonious Monk.

The Sweet & Hot's offerings included Fulton Street, Pasadena's Golden Eagles, the Misbehavin' Jazz Band, the Hot Frogs and the slick Sorta Dixie from Las Vegas, whose sidemen double on four-part vocals Four Freshman style.

As always, the most exciting sounds at both festivals came from the shifting lineups of fine instrumentalists, who use familiar enough tunes as the undergirding for both soaring improvisations and intricate interweavings.

What seemed significant at both festivals is that the musicians have begun to be younger than their audiences. The splendid young, Yale-educated cornetist Peter Ecklund and trumpeter Max Vax, clarinetists Allan Vache and Bob Draga and guitarists Howard Alden and Terry Evans, among other striking soloists, represent a new generation of artists able to honor the past without being trapped in it.

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