A pair of music festival series kick off in Santa Monica and Westchester
By Michael Aushenker
Long gone are the days when Thelonious Monk jammed with John Coltrane on “In Walked Bud” and “Epistrophy” live at the Five Spot Café in New York’s Bowery section. At its peak in the late 1950s and 60s, jazz represented the cutting edge in music, offering a certain amount of danger that has since caved in to a daisy link of cliches and has marginalized this once-thriving American art form into the shadows of newer genres such as pop, rap and electronica.
Well, two Westside festivals in August intend to keep the saxophones blowing, the ivories tickling, and the vibes tinkling straight through the remainder of summer.
Westchester’s Westside Jazzfest promises five Saturdays of funk, Latin, world beat, bop and contemporary at The Promenade at Howard Hughes Center. The Gumbo Brothers, hosted by Helen Borgers, will open Jazzfest, sponsored by KJAZZ 88.1 on Saturday, Aug. 3. Hosted by Nick Tyler, Elliott Caine will blast his mighty horn on Aug. 10. Borgers returns on Aug. 17 to introduce the North Hollywood Jazz Quintet, while Bubba Jackson will emcee the Aug. 24 night with headliners Western Standard Time. All performances will run from 6 to 8 p.m.
Meanwhile, the eighth annual Jazz on the Lawn concert series returns to Stewart Street Park in Santa Monica every Sunday. Presented by Santa Monica Cultural Affairs and the city of Santa Monica, Jazz on the Lawn invites the public to bring picnic baskets, blankets and beach chairs for a weekly dose of jazz delivered by Latin jazz and salsa act Conganás (Aug. 4), the hard bop and Afro-Cubana of Elliot Caine Quintet (Aug. 11), KoTolán, which combines groove jazz, Latin jazz, disco and soul (Aug. 18), and The Overstreets New Orleans Jazz Band, offering Preservation Hall-esque stylings with a touch of Andrew Sisters (Aug. 25).
In addition to the music at Jazz on the Lawn are frozen desserts, and Hubert’s Lemonade and O.N.E. Coconut Water will provide complementary drinks.
According to those playing such series, the free jazz festivals offer the musicians a chance to preserve a dwindling genre for area jazz purists while hopefully introducing the “A-B-C’s” of the genre to music lovers too young to remember those slick Miles Davis Elite scooter commercials. Recently, representatives of two of the bands playing Jazz on the Lawn, the Latin-infused Conganás and the Cajun-flavored ONOJB, explained to The Argonaut why such festivals are crucial to L.A.’s cultural welfare.
“It has affected the whole jazz scene what has happened with pop music, especially with electronic sequencing,” Conganás director and percussionist Christian Moraga said from his Hawthorne home, discussing today’s catch-22 dilemma. “You want to grab some of that sound and do something that’s contemporary. If you want to play straight ahead, it’s very limited. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder. People are not buying it, if you want to make a living (playing pure jazz). That’s the sad part.”
For two and a half years, Conganás has played as a group.
“All of the musicians, we do more than one thing,” Moraga said, adding, “I do the octopus kind of thing (playing multiple-instruments in concert).”
Moraga, who relocated from Chile to Los Angeles because the latter represents the heart of the entertainment business, has been playing as a freelance musician for two decades. But he admitted that it hasn’t been easy for him as a jazz musician.
“This tells you people want this,” Moraga said of the festivals. “(However,) the (music) industry is not putting it out there. They don’t want to make the people smarter.”
The rest of his band, mostly Cuban, all live in the San Fernando Valley. As freelancers, they’ve had to adapt to changing musical trends to eke out a living, but they insist on creating new contributions to the jazz form, he said.
“We have a couple of originals,” said Moraga, who will sell Conganás’ self-titled debut CD at their Aug. 4 show. Like the concert set, their disc will include a mix of Puerto Rican salsa, Cuban salsa, and tunes by Art Blakey and Clifford Brown, who capitalized on the mambo craze that gripped America in the 1950s.
“They took their own understanding and put that post-bebop era in a Latin context,” Moraga explained, “mixing it up with United States jazz. People can dig it a little more, you know?”
Explaining the difference between the two kinds of salsa his group will perform, Moraga described Puerto Rican salsa as playing more to the dancer while Cuban salsa, boasting “more challenging harmonies and structures,” caters more to musicians.
For bandleader Andy Comeau and singer wife Dawn Lewis, Overstreets New Orleans Jazz Band started two years ago as an offshoot to their ongoing Vaudevillains orchestra cabaret show (which formed in 2008). About a dozen musicians strong, the jazz band first gigged at Ariel in Santa Monica. At their Aug. 25 show, they’ll play traditional New Orleans jazz, mostly standards culled from 1915-30: “Tiger Rag,” “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon,” “That’s a Plenty” (sung by Louie Armstrong), and “Ain’t Gonna Give You None of My Jelly Roll.”
While Comeau recognizes his group plays “early New Orleans jazz that is a dying art form,” he says the band is not as concerned about the advancement of jazz music as much as they are on preserving it.
“We play what we think is entertaining to people and what would be fun to watch,” Comeau told The Argonaut. “It’s something a little more dynamic than a guy with a guitar.”
His strain of jazz reached its apex in the 1930s, following the New Orleans flood of 1927 and the Great Depression. “After that, (the musicians) went to Chicago,” he says.
“Kids today don’t think of it as jazz, they think of it as old timey music. When we think of jazz, you’re thinking of Miles Davis or John Coltrane. (New Orleans-style jazz) sort of predated that by many decades,” Comeau said.
Comeau said Overstreets New Orleans Jazz Band is one of L.A.’s very few practitioners of this style.
“There’s a couple other bands that do it (in L.A., however) I’ve never actually seen them,” he said. “If you go see (audiences at these types of concerts), they’re all old folks.”
And yet, he says a “young kitsch factor” has set in with the appreciation of this type of jazz routinely found on the soundtrack of a Woody Allen film. For Comeau, the joys of New Orleans jazz amount to a generational transmission of ditties his father used to play on the organ and the banjo when he was a kid in New Boston, NH.
“They’re songs which have withstood the test of time,” he said. “They’re a throwback to the bands of the 20s and 30s. They’re fun.”
Moraga feels jazz in L.A. in 2013 feels its most vital at clubs such as The Blue Whale in downtown L.A. and Upstairs at Vitello’s in Studio City, “which has some cool stuff happening all the time.” He also loves Hollywood’s Catalina Bar & Grill and La Descarga near Western Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.
“That’s where we started,” Moraga said of the latter, (Spanish for “jam session”). “That’s where we created our sound.”
The Westside’s free twin concert series should, at the very least, provide some nice aural ambiance as the sun sets on summer and August segues into autumn.
“We love doing (the festivals) because there’s not a lot of exposure today to live music unless you’re that way and you go and look for it,” Comeau said. “It’s good to have it in the community.”
Jazz on the Lawn at Stewart Street Park will include a variety of amenities: a children’s playground, restrooms and nearby parking. Stewart Street Park is at 1836 Stewart St., Santa Monica. Information, smgov.net/jazz.
Westside Jazzfest runs every Saturday night in August at the Promenade, 6081 Center Drive, Westchester. Information, hhpromenade.com.