Launched in 1958, the Monterey Jazz Festival now stands as one of the longest-running jazz festivals in the world and has become one of the flagship events of the jazz calendar. It would be difficult to name a legend of the last six decades who hasn't played the festival; its lineups have boasted the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, and countless others.
To celebrate the festival's 50th anniversary in 2008, a supergroup of contemporary jazz greats was assembled to carry the spirit of the fest on the road as the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour. Since then, the idea has been reprised several times, and the latest incarnation of the all-star ensemble will perform at Princeton's McCarter Theatre on Friday.
Led by musical director and pianist Gerald Clayton, the current lineup features saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, guitarist/vocalist Raul Midón, bassist Joe Sanders, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. Everyone in the band has been featured at the festival over the years, and Clayton and Coltrane are second-generation performers: Coltrane following his legendary saxophonist father, John; Clayton his father, bassist John Clayton, and uncle, saxophonist Jeff Clayton.
The band represents a cross-section of contemporary mainstream jazz, respected but recognizably tethered to the tradition, on the forefront without being forbiddingly avant-garde. In that sense, the members make ideal ambassadors for the California festival, which routinely hosts the leading lights of the moment, offering a full-spectrum snapshot of the state of the jazz art with hints of where it might be heading.
Clayton and Sanders first came to the Monterey County Fairgrounds as part of the Next Generation Jazz Festival, MJF's 45-year-old student competition. "I have a lot of personal memories of being up there in my developmental years, seeing the fairgrounds and some really inspiring shows, and getting to meet some of my heroes," Clayton reminisces.
"It's more than a festival," he says. "It's a family gathering for the whole community of musicians. There's only a few festivals that have been that kind of meeting point throughout history. Just looking at the list of great musicians who have graced the Monterey stage is pretty much like looking through a history book of the music."
Clayton took the occasion to look back through that history in selecting the repertoire for this tour. Several of the band's members contributed original material in addition to jazz classics and standards associated with former headliners. That list is so long and thorough, jokes Clayton, that he "could have chosen almost any tune because everyone has passed through over the years. Everything is at our disposal."
The pieces he did opt for include the standard "Old Folks," made famous by Miles Davis; Benny Golson's well-known "Stablemates"; and Thelonious Monk's immortal "'Round Midnight" in an arrangement by Herbie Hancock - thus paying homage to two Monterey legends in one tune.
Supergroups can be a daunting prospect, bringing together musicians used to leading their own bands - with the attendant egos. According to Nicholas Payton, never one to mince words or gloss over uncomfortable truths, this band has been a rare exception.
"Everybody in this band is flexible and listens, which is imperative if you're going to play as a group," Payton says. "All-star groups like this can go either way. Most often, it's a nightmare. This time, it clicks."
For the younger musicians, being entrusted with the festival's legacy provides them a unique opportunity to follow directly in the footsteps of some of the music's pioneers. "In the same way that we feel a responsibility and an honor to carry on the torch of the history of the music," Clayton says, "I think we're all really excited to serve as mascots for such a pinnacle gathering."