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CENTERPIECE: Ventura County | MUSIC

Rebirth of a Festival

10th Santa Barbara jazz extravaganza gets a locally based director and a new vision.

September 24, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Well-dressed jazz fans, a few slouching media members and other important people were packed into Santa Barbara's beachfront Andria's Harborside restaurant for one happy hour this summer. They idly feasted on appetizers and free-flowing beverages, while Nate Birkey's cool-toned trumpet cooed in the background. On the face of it, it was just another party, this one announcing the upcoming jazz festival.

On another level, the event had deeper resonance, this being the first year the city's jazz festival was to be run by "one of us," as new owner and director Peter Clark took over from founding director Jack Butefish.

This weekend's edition of the Santa Barbara Jazz Festival, taking place on the sand at Leadbetter Beach, is the 10th annual affair, and that number itself is a milestone in the fragile jazz festival cosmos. More important, though, this is the year the festival enjoys a veritable rebirth.

For one thing, it's the first festival in years with a bona fide jazz star as a headliner: renascent piano legend Dave Brubeck appears Saturday night, and the ever-popular Les McCann returns Sunday, with the commanding and increasingly renowned !Cubanismo! capping things off Sunday night. This festival is suddenly worth noticing.

A familiar face and an amiable character around town, Clark runs Andria's Harborside with his wife, Dallas, and hunkers down in the wrap-around piano bar here a few nights a week. He has played a role in past festivals, as a musician in the City College big band, one of the regular highlights of festival programs over the years.

As a businessperson, Clark was adversely affected by the decision, a few years back, to move the festival--which took place on Labor Day weekend--to the beach near Stearn's Wharf. At that point, Clark was part of chorus of discontented businesspeople who felt the festival sapped a built-in tourist crowd on one of the busiest weekends of the year.

At the behest of the city, the festival was moved to later in September last year, and returned to Leadbetter Beach. But that didn't address the other problem over the last few years: the festival's fickle relationship with the J-word.

Local jazz fans have voiced criticism and generally felt alienated from the festival's resistance to programming actual jazz. Last year, the headliner was popular "smooth jazz" sax player Boney James, satisfying fans of that slick subdivision of jazz culture but perpetuating the festival's sagging legacy among listeners of jazz per se, including Clark.

It wasn't always thus. Founded by Butefish, who runs a Santa Monica-based company specializing in sports events, the festival kicked off promisingly with one of the last West Coast concert appearances of the late, great tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. Subsequent festivals have featured the likes of the respected Marcus Roberts, Cedar Walton, Airto and Flora Purim, John Pattitucci and many others.

In recent years, though, the festival began sullying its reputation by going soft on jazz. And that reputation required a changing of the guard.

Clark recalled that, in January, "out of the blue, Jack called me and said, 'I'm selling the festival.' I said 'Let me think about it.' I spoke to the mayor and Parks and Recreation and said, 'What do you think about having an in-city jazz festival if I take it over? Can I count on your support?' They were very excited, and said, 'Oh, this is what this thing needs.' We met with Jack and worked out a deal, and here we go."

From the outset, Clark explained, "my immediate agenda was to get a big-name jazz person. I gave a wish list of several names to John and we were able to get Brubeck, which, to me, is tremendous."

As it happens, Brubeck has a local connection in that his brother Henry, who died in 1985, taught music in Santa Barbara schools for 25 years. A Henry Brubeck scholarship fund is being launched by the festival this year.

The more famous Brubeck, who took America by storm in the '50s with such tunes as "Take Five" and his by-now standard composition "In Your Own Sweet Way," is going stronger than ever at age 77. The last few years have seen him flourish, with several recent jazz projects on the Telarc label, the latest a new set of original tunes, "So What's New?"

Outside the jazz purview, Brubeck, who studied with French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College in the '40s, continues to compose classical works. Performances and recordings of that side of his musical life are also increasing.

Is he happy working both jazz and classical angles?

"I do need both," he said on the phone from a tour stop in San Diego. "If I have to write and write and write, my piano technique goes down, from holding a pencil . . . You wish you were out on the road playing jazz and that you had never seen a sheet of manuscript paper. At that moment, it seems so much more satisfying to be a jazz musician.

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