For fans, many of whom attend every party, it’s like going home for a family event renewing acquaintances with fans and musicians from previous years. People come from all over the country and the world, for that matter. This year, as always, there was a sizable contingent from Great Britain and several from as far away as Japan.
For Rothman and McClure, it all started 12 years ago with their first Labor Day Weekend West Coast Jazz Party. After six years, these events had become so popular that they asked themselves, "Why not put on another in February over President’s Day weekend?" And there you have it: the 6th Annual, wound up last Feb. 19, selling out both Saturday and Sunday night concerts, mounting up to a four-day total of some 3,000 tickets sold. So the formula has worked well two parties a year, six months apart.
Of course, these parties are nothing without the guest artists, and this year there were over 70 great musicians, including pianists Benny Green, Renee Rosnes, and newcomer, Gerald Clayton; sax players Scott Hamilton, Harry Allen and the legendary Houston Person; trombonists Wycliff Gordon, trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos and a bevy of great drummers Lewis Nash, Jeff Hamilton and Winard Harper and the list goes on.
The secret recipe for the parties seems to be: start with your favorite players and blend them together in various combinations and see what happens. You don’t know what you’re going to get, but it’s almost certain to be tasty jazz. As drummer Nash put it Sunday, "We know what we’re doing, but not where we’re going."
Jazz in this context is really the "sound of surprise" as someone else put it. During Friday night’s first set, you could see this in the manner trombonists Mike Fahn and Gordon picked up phrases from each with pianist Rosnes continuing the pattern, inviting trumpeter Carl Saunders to join in superb musicians, obviously inspired by each other and having a great time. Similarly you could see this happening in the duo between Green and bassist John Clayton, imaginatively trading eight bars back and forth on "This Could Be the Start of Something Big." Fans constantly relished this type interplay all four days.
What started out in the beginning as three-day events, Friday through Sunday, have evolved into four-day celebrations, now starting Thursdays. Rothman says, "After a few years, it became obvious that many were arriving on Thursday. To give them some music to listen to, Thursday evening concerts began in 2002."
It doesn’t matter whether folks come from long distances or close by, many get a room in the hotel. This way they really immerse themselves in the music. Those with lots of stamina can avail themselves to upwards of 12 hours of jazz a day.
Evening concerts are scheduled in the Grand Pacific Ballroom from 7 to 11:15. Beginning Friday afternoon, daily pool-side concerts run noon to 3:30. (This year Saturday and Sunday’s were moved into the ballroom because of rainy weather.) Saturday and Sunday, morning brunch concerts begin at 9:45. And, there are nightcap sessions for listening and dancing at 11:15 in Newport Coast Ballroom. So fans can hear it all or pick and choose between venues. (Those with rooms can sneak away anytime for a nap to recharge.)
Rothman and McClure share the duties. Joe is responsible for promotion and ticket sales, while John works on planning the program. It helps that Rothman was a hotel manager for Marriott before retiring in 1992. "I doubt if Marriott would have gone along with the first one if they didn’t know me," he says. When he’s not mapping out sets, McClure works for the Anaheim/Orange County Convention Bureau. As it has turned out, the two have a never-ending task planning for the parties. "While we just finished February’s party," Rothman said, "we’re working on getting the coming Labor Day event together, as well as contacting musicians for next year President’s Day weekend."
Amidst all this music, two regular groups standing out were the Winard Harper Sextet, a hard-driving, neo-bop group from New York, and the Gerald Clayton Trio, headed by the talented 21-year-old son of veteran bass player, bandleader John Clayton.
Dynamic drummer Harper could be dubbed the new Art Blakey. Setting himself in the middle of the bandstand, surrounded by talented young players, he was a bundle of energy, smiling broadly, shouting out, exhorting each on. The group’s hard-driving, neo-bop sound was more progressive than the party’s more mainstream fare, but the audience quickly picked up on it. And, with Harper, one even looked forward to the drum solo.
Gerald Clayton with regulars, Dan Lutz on bass and Kevin Kanner on drums, brought the crowd to its feet cheering with the leader’s original "Sunny Day No," and the three had everyone clapping with the hip-hop rhythm of "Everything I Play Gonna Be Funky." Some other highlights of this February’s party:
*Person’s commanding tenor sound in a variety of group situations down and dirty with the blues and soft and melodic on ballads.
*Pianist Green in every context, always smiling urging others on. Dazzlingly pyrotechnic on some numbers, he also convinced us soft is better in "Body and Soul," ending as it did in a whisper.
*Drummer Nash, faster than the eye could follow with a solo on the brushes, creatively shining in his interplay with pianist Rosnes and bassist Peter Washington on "No More Blues."
*Young Clayton's first chance to appear in a trio context with his bassist father, John, and drummer Jeff Hamilton. You could see the pride in Dad’s face as his son tore into a stomping gospel-blues number.
*Saturday’s Tribute to Horace Silver set with a quintet featuring Ricky Woodard on tenor and Gilbert Castellanos, trumpet. They really did shake things up with Silver’s "You Gotta Shake That Thing."
On Sunday there were two tributes, both underscoring the familial feeling of the party. At brunch, as someone put it, "the family of jazz" honored David Abel who died recently. Abel was a prominent piano dealer and a great friend to musicians, providing pianos and instruments when needed. That morning all seven pianists played selections dedicated to Abel. A surprise appearance came when the great 87-year-old Gerald Wiggins stopped by to play in a two- piano duet with Green.
The finale at Sunday evening’s concert was "A Tribute to Count Basie," featuring an all-star orchestra conducted by John Clayton, with guest vocalist Barbara Morrison. It was great to hear the Basie charts performed by top musicians, including several who played under Basie himself, including Jeff Hamilton on drums, Jackie Kelso on sax and Snooky Young, now in his eighties, on trumpet. Especially "Shiny Stockings" and "Whirlybird" brought cheers.
Clayton, himself was bassist during the long life of the band. Between numbers, he told anecdotes about the band and the family of musicians it nurtured. The band members all nodded in acknowledgment at some of the tales, as did the audience, many Basie fans for decades. After all, this was a family affair.For information on the upcoming Labor Day West Coast Jazz Party, call (949) 759-5003 or visit www.westcoastjazzparty.com.