What a set. As always…every year I’ve been to the Central Avenue Jazz Festival the Gerald Wilson Orchestra has been the high point, and they were again. Quite the line up: his son Anthony on guitar, of course, and Bobby Rodriguez was the first trumpet. He sounded beautiful as always. I cannot remember all the players, but Jack Nimitz held down the bottom of the horns on that baritone of his; the great and underrated Carl Randall, filling in now for Teddy Edwards and Harold Land, played some beautiful, strong tenor (he always makes me think of Dexter Gordon.) Some dreadlocked cat I didn’t know [Louis Van Taylor] did a great extended break on the tenor that Wilson let roll for chorus after chorus like Paul Gonsalves at Newport…. I think what makes this Orchestra so special is Gerald’s arrangements–always hard swinging and fast, almost breakneck at times–and the great soloists he collects, each of whom get plenty of room to take off. The tunes ranged from Basie (there was more Basie at this thing than at the Basie Centennial at the Bowl last Thursday) to Trane(“Equinox”) and Miles (“Milestones”) to Duke Ellington to some pop classic that is on the tip of my tongue, goddammit. Alas, the Law stepped in early, who knows why (nostalgia for the Chief Parker days?) and shut down the music at 7:30 so it was a truncated set. No “Viva Tirado” or “Theme For Monterey”. But what there was of it, all four or five tunes, was sheer ecstasy. He was sure in ecstasy, a man in his mid ’80′s dancing around on that stage, conducting his powerhouse orchestra. Gerald Wilson, like all the jazz greats who choose to remain in Los Angeles (NYC is cold when you’re poor) is underrated by the jazz historians and critics and literati; but with Teddy Edwards and Harold Land and Ernie Andrews and Horace Tapscott and a dozen or so others he is something of an L.A. secret treasure. Hopefully he’ll be on that stage next year. And hopefully the stage managers can keep it on schedule so he can play a full set!
By the way, I came across a great stash of jazz albums on Saturday for real cheap (I won’t tell you where….) One of them was a bunch of Jimmie Lunceford sides from the late thirties and early forties. I was listening to it Sunday morning, and reading the notes that talked about Central Avenue and the Dunbar Hotel, and Gerald Wilson, and on the back there is a great shot of the band from 1941, including Snooky Young on trumpet. I completely forgot all that later, of course, in the middle of all the people and music and heat of the day. Even walking through the lobby of the hotel and looking at the pictures it hadn’t occur to me. Then during his first number, the Basie tune, Gerald Wilson calls out the first soloist: Snooky Young. He stood up there in the back and blew hard, and with that plunger in hand his horn was talking, telling some old, old stories. I’d seen Snooky Young there before, of course, probably every time I’d seen the Orchestra play this Festival. But having seen that picture that very morning, and listening to him solo on that old wax and then here in person, in front of me: it was different. That ephemeral connection to the old days, what I’d known only as history, suddenly became very real. Maybe it was the sunset breeze kicking up but for a minute there I felt a chill. Like watching an old black and white photo turn into color and start moving. Making history real. Jazz just seemed alive, all of it.
If you have never been, you really ought to make the Central Avenue Jazz Festival. And it’s free.