Montavilla Jazz Festival:  Journeys in space and time

Annual jazz celebration culminates in a dazzling musical voyage that transcended today's terrestrial troubles

By DAVID MACLAINE

In 1959 a student at the University of Oregon started singing jazz gigs with other music students, including future master Ralph Towner and Glenn Moore. A year later she moved to San Francisco, married a bandleader named Sonny King and took his last name. Soon she was touring, and for a couple of years you could hear her inventive jazz stylings in the Playboy clubs. (Where you could also take in Nat King Cole and Count Basie). But by 1970 the writing was on the wall: the musical world was not exactly crying out for the next great scat singer. So Nancy King settled down in Eugene to raise her three sons, gigging on weekends in Portland’s Benson Hotel. In 1976 she was featured on First Date, an album by jazz saxophonist Steve Wolfe. But that was it until the 1990s. By then the children were grown, and the fifty-year old singer was ready to embark on the second stage of her career.

Nancy King performed at the 2018 Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser

It wasn’t exactly a belated rocketship ride to the top, but within the niche where the jazz survivors and the new generation carrying on the traditions kept alive their art she began to build a reputation. By 1999 King had reached the point where a reviewer of her album Moon Ray could lead off his rave account with the suggestion that “With the passing of Betty Carter, a case can be made that the mantle as preeminent bop and post-bop vocalist should be draped across the shoulders of Portland, Oregon denizen Nancy King.” In 2007 Ben Ratliff noted in the New York Times that “Musicians eventually spread the word eastward, but it took a long time before anything happened beyond high-quality admiration.” But that had changed at last, he averred: “This is Ms. King’s time; jazz singers in general have become very interested in her.”

Jazz fans are interested too, so much so that I almost missed my chance to hear King, who was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame in 2007, sing on the final night of the the 2018 Montavilla Jazz Festival. I’m glad I didn’t. Her performance was one of those mind-altering excursions into another dimension that temporarily squelched my ability to translate an experience into words, a perfect embodiment of why some of us simply cannot live without the arts. Her set, which for the moment we will file under the cliche “out of this world,” was the culmination of a series of performances I saw during the festival at Portland Metro Arts: George Colligan and his keyboard, guitar and drum combo Other Barry; James Miley’s Watershed Suite; and the return to Portland of native daughter Nicole Glover, with the tenor saxophonist joined by Colligan on piano, John Lakey’s bass, and the drumming of Alan Jones. At each stop on my journeys during the festival, my thoughts kept darting back to the 1950s, and after the first evening’s headline event, the musical high induced by Glover’s brilliance carried with it the shadow of an alternative reality. My ears were in the here and now, but I couldn’t help imagining her blazing performance set in the very different musical world of the mid-1950s.

Jazz Goes to College

I had begun musing on jazz history during the Other Barry set, after noticing that the New York-based Colligan was “currently an assistant professor at Portland State” and his accomplished partner on guitar, Enzo Irace, was a recent student in the music program. How had a once-thriving art been driven from the mainstage of American music and into the status of endangered species — a part of our heritage kept alive in part by the existence of college programs devoted to its study?

Fresh in my mind was a stray comment by Leonard Bernstein in an old episode of the Omnibus television series about how jazz had become a kind of chamber music, and how young people were no longer dancing the way they had been just a few years earlier. The comment seemed to me to be fatal foreshadowing of the looming catastrophe that struck jazz and other forms of “serious” music, when in just a few years rock would evolve from the rock-and-roll bands teenagers were dancing to and quickly sweep all other genres to the fringe, to survive as best they could in a drastically-reduced habitat.

Other Barry’s George Colligan and Enzo Irace performed at the 2018 Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser

It was Other Barry’s electric keyboard and guitar that spurred part of this first flight into history, because a part of what draws me to jazz is the sound of acoustic instruments, the purer tone free of electric fuzz. The players were inventive, but the sound itself was not much to my taste, so my mind drifted a bit. I was reminded that when pop music went over to electric guitar and bass it allowed a small group of instrumentalists who would previously have been suited only for the audience of small clubs to project their sound into bigger halls, stadiums and the broad fields of festivals. Concert receipts no longer produced at best a marginal living wage; they made rock stars richer than the most skilful jazz musicians had ever been.

James Miley performed with Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser

The elegant soundscapes of Miley’s Watershed Suite reinforced the mental reverberation of the ‘50s. Miley too is an assistant professor, at Willamette University, and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble which played the Suite, is an assembly of talented young players trained in college jazz classrooms. This reminder that universities now preserve jazz in the same way that national parks preserve wildlife, seemed especially apt for a piece whose various movements celebrate an assortment of Oregon’s water-shaped natural landscapes, with riffs that mimicked mountain streams and so on. But as another of those Bernstein lectures had reminded me, “illustrative music” is music first and illustration only by decree, as Lenny demonstrated by spinning out an alternative scenario that would just as easily fit music that Richard Strauss had originally composed to evoke an episode from Don Quixote.

Taken strictly in terms of musical language, Miley’s Suite used similar techniques to those employed by Duke Ellington for his own suites: carefully sculpted ensemble sections that launched well-crafted solo flourishes, with harmonies more or less compatible with those the Ellington orchestra employed after the Duke had absorbed the innovations of bebop. It was, in other words, a very skillful creation using musical resources honed during the 1930s and ‘40s and then refined in the 1950s. The preservation and transmission of that refined art art is one of the better justifications for the survival of our university system. While I enjoyed the musical journey to various Oregon places–this canyon, that waterfall– I also smiled at the irony that I was spending a sunny weekend afternoon in a state brimming with natural wonders listening to music inside a windowless performance hall.

Return of the Native

Nicole Glover is a Portland native who now lives in New York, and her development to this point has involved a good deal of back and forth between East and West Coasts. In high school her budding talent earned her a place in the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, and the ensemble’s national tour “concluded with a performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Wynton Marsalis” as her standard biographical blurb explains. After graduation Glover headed off to William Paterson University, conveniently located just outside New York City. Then it was home again, but not for long. Within two years she was flying even farther east to play in France at the Vannes Jazz Festival. Back on home turf she was active in an assortment of groups, most fruitfully perhaps with George Colligan the pianist on her 2015 debut album First Record, where she also teamed with the two other members of the quartet, drummer Alan Jones and bassist Jon Lakey.

Last year Glover made the move to New York, and her set at the Montavilla Jazz Festival celebrated her first trip back since that big step. Her very first piece was a composition of her own drawn from the mixture of confusion, excitement, stress and triumph of navigating New York City’s subway system, and it served quite nicely to show off her creative range and unstinting virtuosity. The music roamed out toward the limits where harmonic complexity dances on the brink of chaos, then came soaring back to safer, but no less thrilling ground. No one could doubt that she was a musician brimming with inventive energy, with a passion well matched by a powerful technique.

Nicole Glover performed with George Colligan the 2018 Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser

Her set moved on to slightly less complex but no less enthralling music-making. There was the composition included because her parents wanted to hear it, which was every bit as endearing as the story about why it was on the program. There was another Oregon connection in a rich arrangement of an Ellington original, composed, as she informed us, on a night-time train ride through the Willamette Valley in 1933. It was, in short a triumphant display by a young performer in the midst of a break-out that would, in better times for the art, be heralded as the arrival of a new musical demigod. I left the event with an adrenalin high damped only by occasional thoughts of what might have been.

What I kept picturing was this gifted performer making her great breakthrough in the days when the jazz giants still walked the earth, when the emergence of another gifted instrumentalist would mean records deals and press coverage far beyond what the jazz niche now offers.

Consider the scene in 1957, the year that kept reverberating when I tried to put Glover’s playing in historical context. This was the year that Playboy Magazine released its first jazz poll, and an album featuring the performers selected there. Hugh Hefner’s embrace of the music was a matter of riding a wave just reaching a crest. In that same year, a jazz fan could enjoy two newly released albums from the celebrated last sessions for Prestige by Miles Davis’ first quartet, as well as their first album on Columbia, Round About Midnight, and his great Gil Evans collaboration, Miles Ahead. But if the trend-setting trumpeter was leading the pack, there was an eager troop of saxophone players not too far behind. Sonny Rollins might not have been able to match the previous year’s Saxophone Colossus, but it wasn’t for lack of trying: he released six albums on four different labels. Stan Getz had seven, Gerry Mulligan had five more besides the two with Getz, the veteran Coleman Hawkins had five (including The Hawk Flies High) and Ben Webster started a long, steady run with Soulville. Dexter Gordon was still in prison, and Paul Desmond was playing Disney tunes, but a harbinger of great things to come was the first solo album by the sax player in that Miles Davis Quintet, John Coltrane.

Alan Jones performed with Nicole Glover at the 2018 Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser

This is the milieu in which I kept imagining Nicole Glover’s emergence, an age when jazz was the music of choice for the sophisticated listener who could thrill to a living art form still evolving at a rapid pace. It’s entirely possible that the sexist conventions of the day, congenial for female singers, less so for female instrumentalists, would have thwarted the trajectory I kept imagining. But talent this exciting surely deserves wider possibilities than the niche that remains now that the big Rock Asteroid has transformed the landscape. Heady as the late 1950s were for jazz, promising as the future then seemed, disaster was looming just ahead, and in a little over a decade we were living in a whole new world. 1957 was, after all, also the year of Chuck Berry: “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Rock and Roll Music.” A Seattle kid named Jimi Hendrix turned 15, and within months had picked up his first guitar.

The wave of misfortune that momentarily slapped aside the first generation of rockers– the Mann Act prosecution of Berry, Elvis’ entry into the army, Buddy Holly’s last plane trip, Jerry Lee Lewis’ embrace of an underaged cousin–was only a speed bump. Within a few years the Beatles reached America, Bob Dylan went electric, and not that long after so did Miles Davis. The Playboy Jazz Poll became a Jazz and Pop Poll and the cartoon illustration of their “Hall of Fame” band became a weird mixture of genres: Louis Armstrong and Janis Joplin together in front of a hybrid band including Keith Moon and Paul McCartney along with a host of jazz legends. The critics came on board the rock bandwagon during the spell when the new music was trying out various strains that flourished in the rich and varied musical ecosystem of the 1960s, but it didn’t take long for the new limits to be reached, and those same critics led the way to the first rebound back to the loud and insistent first principles. “Simplify and intensify” turned out to be a sure-fire formula for mass popularity. The beat went on, and on, far too rigid for the sort of free play with time that made jazz unique.

Oregon Legend

The Montavilla Jazz Festival offers day passes allowing you come and go as you please, with the proviso that for any given act your seating is subject to availability. I imagined that arriving ten minutes before the set by Dmitri Matheny and Darrell Grant that preceded the headline attraction would suffice, only to discover that all the seats were filled.

The festival does, however, provide a lounge area complete with closed circuit TV coverage of the main stage, and it was from a table there that I listened as Matheny’s flugelhorn and Grant’s piano, ably assisted by drummer MIchael Raynor and bass player Eric Gruber provided laid-back, elegant interpretations, appropriate in style but insufficient in fact to soothe my anxiety over whether I would make it back inside for the final act.

Dmitri Matheny performed with Darrell Grant the 2018 Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser

After the set ended, and a certain number of audience members departed–most were too canny to risk their seats–I awaited the judgment of the doorkeeper whose job was to spot the now-empty seats and allow those of us who had been awaiting the chance to take them. It was with great relief that I made my way up into the makeshift risers, then along a row of already-seated music fans, to the precious spot I had been told was mine.

New arrangements of Cole Porter songs by pianist Randy Porter, earlier released on the Grammy-finalist album Porter plays Porter, distinguished this last set of the Festival. With bass player John Witala and drummer Alan Jones, Porter first offered a sample of the non-vocal numbers on the album, rich and rewarding pieces, with extra layers of probing piano jazz laid on the original tunes like fine varnish. Then he introduced the singer who would perform the next group of songs. From behind the scenes emerged a woman, making her way to the front of the stage with some effort on a pair of those metal crutches that fit from hand to elbow. (King has had one hip replaced, and the other now needs replacement too.) She reached her chair, sat … and hesitated, scoping out where she could set those crutches down. A City Council candidate in the first row, who had earlier confessed her “girl crush” on King, spotted her dilemma, popped up from her front row seat, and set them in a safe, convenient place. The frail figure sat, picked up her microphone, and the music began.

Nancy King at the 2018 Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser

There were, I suppose, a few moments during the songs that followed when my eyes weren’t filled with tears. Even as it happened, as I went to that place where you cry from sheer joy, amazement and wonder, I was beginning to grope for the right words to explain what was happening. I knew very well that the word that came up first was woefully inadequate, but even before I could name them I was celebrating a tribe of people who both care and probe deeply into the wonders of the musical art. At the moment, despite my raptures, all I could then think to call them was “appreciators.” What was happening to me was a glimpse, not just into the artistry unfolding in dazzling fashion before me, but into the soul of the select few whose passion and skill can go so very far into the realm of human creation.

What I was hearing was a voice you’d never expect to hear from an ailing woman in her late 70s. It took flight with the ease of the sparrows who dart from the fence to my bird feeder back home, landing on the notes with the same sort of precision that guides them as they swoop through the air to the perch. It caressed the words, phrased them lovingly and saucily, and then launched into flights of ornamentation, scatting freely and brilliantly, but somehow always evading the danger of seeming disconnected from the song that launched that scamper of syllables. There was the song at the core of things, a Porter standard familiar from other versions to anyone who gives a damn about our musical heritage, and Randy Porter’s fine arrangement, and somehow the past interpretations and the current one were all there at once as Nancy King showed just how freely the old tune could fly without ever losing its tether to the original melody.

Randy Porter performed with Nancy King at the 2018 Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser

What had me in tears was not just the incredible musicianship, but my appreciation of the rare dedication, the willingness to probe and probe and probe still deeper to unearth unsuspected dimensions to the music, to take that hard-won understanding to bring into the light new facets that could refract and reflect, provide a new gleam and sparkle from a beloved old song. I could play the usual games with the song titles, tell you how her voice was certainly not “Just One of Those Things” that the guiding principle was more like a laser-drill version of “I Concentrate on You” that after more than one “Night and Day” of exploration she seemed truly determined to get “All of You,” with the song itself being the “you” over which she aimed to “get complete control.” And who could avoid an extra twinge, another flow of tears at “Every Time We Say Goodbye” for the set would indeed end soon, as will, far sooner than we would want, Nancy King herself and a great many of us who marvel at her music.

In the songs that came after her stunning first flight there were a few passing moments when the vocal trouble she confessed to fearing before the concert began could be detected, a few notes one could imagine sung with richer voice on another day, or in another decade. These traces of mortality amid the defiant flow of her timeless artistry added their own tinge to the tears, but they no more dampened the fire than a few flecks of water flicked from fingertips into a blaze. There was almost nothing at all to regret, and something huge and important to be grateful for in having been there with ears that could appreciate what she and the Porter team had shown us.

But it was that tepid “appreciate” that haunted me. My one regret was that no word came to me remotely rich enough to encompass what it was that had given me such joy. I needed a description that would to justice to that complex of qualities that a few rare artists possess, a combination of drive to go as far into the music as possible, emotional depth enough to respond to what he or she finds, intelligence enough to see through complexity that might baffle or distract a simpler soul. Leonard Bernstein, on my mind because of the show that had come to mind during the acts the day before, was another obvious member of the tribe, of those who can not only savor music with unusual intensity, but can share both their insight and its fruits with others. But at the moment I was stuck with a lame tag about my love for the “Great Appreciators.”

Porter and King closed the 2018 Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser

You can imagine my relief when the comparison I was searching for came to me at last. While I listened to Nancy King’s set a vague planetary metaphor kept popping up from time to time. I was trying to put in spatial terms the relation of her singing to the source material, some way to describe the way she circled the original, still guided by it even when she took the most surprising excursions. The danger of the most inventive jazz singing is that it uses the song as no more than a launching pad, the original melody left far behind while the vocalist shows off her chops. King was bending the rhythm, reshaping the melody, and taking off on runs that seemed like they might at any moment eap free of the bonds of good taste, but never did. She was circling the source like an especially frisky satellite, with an orbit that might be a bit eccentric, but which always came back to cavort with the home planet.

It was a look at yet another dazzling photograph from one of our interplanetary probes that solved my dilemma. There was one of those strange little moons of Saturn casting its shadow on the planet’s rings, moving into near eclipse by yet another moon. These are the images that remind us that the world is not yet entirely given over to greed and destruction. 1957 was a good year for jazz, but it was an historic year for our relationship with the cosmos, as our first satellite went up to twinkle among the stars. Now the descendents of those first unmanned vessels speed through the reaches of our solar system and beyond. They show us unsuspected wonders, offer a wealth of new knowledge, and far more often than we might ever have suspected, images of breathtaking beauty.

Voyager II crossed the heliopause in November 2018. Image: NASA

A few of the probes we have sent into deep space have names that resonate a bit: Cassini, Pioneer, New Horizons. But the one name that leapt instantly to mind was the most far-reaching traveller of all, a fitting choice for the musicians and other artists who go the distance to bring us the truth of beauty: Voyager. It is the musical Voyagers such as Nancy King, who even in these dark times, can still make me proud to be a member of the human species. It seems sometimes as though the old simple values, a love of Truth, Beauty and Justice, have fallen by the wayside, replaced by an ever-growing swarm of lies, by gross and unashamed vulgarity, by pervasive injustice fueled by criminal greed. And then a voice rises up and begins to sing. A light begins to gleam in the darkness, and we remember why we cherish life. We aim for the stars, and sometimes shine among them. On the day I wrote these words, Voyager II crossed a boundary from our sun’s domain to that of interstellar space.

And so my shadowy longing for a different time evaporated in the presence of the living flame. What matter for those of us who care for our world’s richest music, intricate and demanding and subtle, incompatible with the background pounding of the amplified beat, that the places we can hear it are now so few and scattered? The refuge may be rare, but it is there, and in such places we can still hear for ourselves that The Good endures. We can gaze in wonderment as the Voyagers take their flights, and the moons dance around the planets and entrance us once again. No more celestial spheres to make imagined, heavenly music, but real sounds rising from the best of us who still give all for truth and beauty.

Nancy King at the 2018 Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser

Here on our earthly plane we can listen to Randy Porter in Portland for three straight nights after Christmas, starting on Boxing Day at Jack London Revue with Rebecca Kilgore. We may dream of an early New Year journey to New York City, to hear Nicole Glover at the Smalls Jazz Club with the George Colligan Quintet, January 4 and 5. We can make plans to attend next summer’s Montavilla Jazz Festival August 17-18 at Portland Metro Arts. And we can hope for another chance, as soon as may be, to cherish once again the marvel that is Nancy King.

David Maclaine is a Portland writer.

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