Jan 20, 2016

An Incredible Jazz Concert, 50 Years Later

One of my formative early musical experiences was a concert I attended in 1966, my last year of high school. I was a dedicated jazz fan, and a fairly decent high school musician. I played tenor in the school jazz band, but my musical education was more on classical clarinet at that point.

In the 1965-66 academic year, Stanford University (a few miles from my house) booked a series of "Jazz Year" concerts - an amazing lineup that included Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and other major jazz figures. I persuaded my parents to buy us tickets to two of the concerts. The first one, on January 23, 1966, was a double bill with Thelonious Monk's quartet and John Coltrane's ensemble.

Here is how I remember it, almost exactly 50 years later:

The concert was in Stanford's Memorial Auditorium. MemAud seated about 1600, and was sold out. Monk came on stage 30 minutes late with his quartet (Charlie Rouse, tenor; Ben Riley, drums; Larry Gales, bass). The band sounded great, and it was a thrill to hear all the tunes played live that I had only heard on record. At one point during an extended Charlie Rouse solo, Monk got up from the piano bench to "stroll," i.e. walk around a bit and stretch his legs, while Rouse's solo continued with just bass and drums accompanying. Monk seemed to be having some trouble walking straight. It actually looked to me as though the stage was slanted, sloping down toward the audience. After doing a little recent internet research, I think that this may very well have been the case - Memorial Auditorium has a "proscenium stage," which could have included a "raked stage" feature. Monk played a set and two encores.

After an intermission, John Coltrane took the stage with his group: Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali, drums; Juno Lewis, percussion; Pharoah Sanders, tenor; Alice Coltrane, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; and Donald Garrett, bass and bass clarinet.

This was early 1966, after "A Love Supreme" had been released (I'd worn out the grooves playing that record), but before the release of "Ascension" or "Meditations." I was unprepared for what was coming.

Coltrane's group played an incredibly intense set, lasting an hour and 20 minutes. There was just one pause in the music; I guess that means there were two songs, maybe. It wasn't clear what the tunes were; there was no announcement, and I heard just a few recognizable pieces of melody. I could say that much of it was in triple meter, but with those three drummers, there were often different meters going simultaneously. Lewis Porter's The John Coltrane Reference quotes Phil Elwood's review in the San Francisco Examiner, listing the pieces as "Peace on Earth" and "Afro Blue." Ralph Gleason, in his San Francisco Chronicle review, listed "My Favorite Things" and "Crescent." For what it's worth, I remember hearing a fragment of "Afro Blue."

It was music at a high spiritual level and a high energy level, transcendent like "A Love Supreme," but perhaps more spontaneously organized. It was not as chaotic as the "Ascension" recording that was released shortly afterward. I recall extended solos from Alice Coltrane, Juno Lewis, and Jimmy Garrison. Coltrane gave his players more solo space than he took himself.

I had no idea that music could be this powerful. Gleason's review described "ensemble climaxes of stupendous intensity." Gleason called the concert "one of the most intense and exhilarating musical experiences I have ever had." It hit me the same way. I walked out of there a changed person. My parents were at the concert with me; I can only imagine what their reaction might have been. I don't think we discussed it.

This was one of the last times that Elvin Jones performed with the group. Some more details on this concert, and Coltrane's gigs immediately after, can be found in these pages of Porter's book.

While doing some internet searching for this post, I ran across this article in the Stanford Alumni Magazine by one of the organizers of the "Jazz Year." The author describes the audience as "underwhelmed" and "tepid." I don't recall, I was too blown away to notice. There was no encore; no encore was necessary.

I wonder if somewhere there is a recording of that concert.

The "Jazz Year" series also included concerts by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington with Ella Fitzgerald, the MJQ, Dizzy, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, and Miles Davis. The Miles event (with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Wayne Shorter) was the only other one I made it to. It was a privilege to have been at that event too, but Miles was pretty subdued and straight-ahead, in comparison.

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