Jazz at the Philharmonic Revived for 70th Anniversary Celebration
On July 2 at the Grammy Museum, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute (LAJI) presented a 70th anniversary celebration of Jazz at the Philharmonic, featuring trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, saxophonist Don Menza and an all-star cast of musicians performing in the original spirit of the famous jazz concert series.
LAJI founder and director Ken Poston remembered the very first Jazz at the Philharmonic performance, in 1944. A benefit for the legal defense fees of a group of Mexican-American teenagers in a murder case saw pianist Nat “King” Cole and guitarist Les Paul ecstatically chase each other in an uptempo blues jam. Illinois Jacquet’s honking tenor sax solo was institutionalized through the serial Asch 78 recordings of the concert.
That first show helped solidify the jam session as a concert attraction and established Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) as a format that would play on the world’s great stages for 20 years, setting producer Norman Granz on the road to become one of jazz’s most successful impresarios ever.
Granz’s insistence on keeping the audience unsegregated was carried all over the country as the series prospered, helping to break down Jim Crow-bred racism.
Poston chose the Grammy Museum for his tribute—a hoot and a holler from the old Philharmonic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles, the first JATP setting. Instead of attempting to recreate the letter of the original all-star lineup—which featured Cole’s trio, clarinetist Barney Bigard, tenor saxophonist Jack McVea, trombonist J.J. Johnson and pianist Joe Sullivan—he aimed for the spirit of JATP.
As he does with his biannual big band festivals, Poston chose some of the most accomplished L.A. players to perform at the 70th anniversary celebration. A rhythm section of pianist Tom Ranier, bassist James Leary and drummer Clayton Cameron expertly supported a clutch of star soloists—including trumpeters Carl Saunders and Arturo Sandoval, trombonists Bill Watrous and Scott Whitfield, and tenor saxophonists Pete Christlieb and Don Menza—in unrehearsed features and jams on venerable warhorses.
Musical combat was a staple of JATP, and while there was no cutting this time around, each player was eager to give his best. Sandoval enjoyed himself with valve-shaking high notes and blistering runs on the all-skate opener, Juan Tizol’s “Perdido,” while Saunders kept it warm and lyrical. The two-trombone feature “I’m Old Fashioned” highlighted the fact that while many JATP outings ran on extroverted passion (bordering on exhibitionism), this grouping was more about mutual respect and cool efficiency. Watrous and Whitfield’s harmonized out-chorus was a nice spontaneous touch. Likewise, a furious two-trumpet number ended with amiable unison playing.
Menza played with a particularly big tone, nodding to Coleman Hawkins on a ballad medley, while Christlieb leaned toward Lester Young—a rhapsodic dreamer to Menza’s blustery stevedore. Sandoval assumed the Dizzy Gillespie posture with a chops-busting high-note solo, while Saunders held his mud with melodic resource during a trumpet battle on a fast blues. “How High the Moon” pitted Menza’s brawling swagger against Christlieb’s effortless swing.
A second set brought out the most assured and loose work: Sandoval channeled Dizzy while Saunders conjured a nasty tone on a burner, while Cameron evoked Buddy Rich. Watrous galvanized the audience with a blowtorch solo on a trombone duet as Whitfield offered a palette of harmonic color.
A furious rendition of “Cherokee” had the audience marveling at Leary and Cameron’s endurance as one soloist after another marked off his musical turf. “Lester Leaps In” was a fitting closer, honoring one of the original JATP stars (saxophonist Young) while showing just how high the bar has been raised since the first JATP traveling circus changed the world so many years ago.