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Monterey Jazz Festival 66 – One Photographer’s Look Back at Shooting Monterey for the First Time

Updated: Jun 14





I’ve been covering legacy music festivals for close to 20 years, including the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals, where I am one of the few photographers from west of the Mississippi. But one festival had eluded me all this time, Monterey Jazz. Monterey’s roots are almost as deep as Newport’s (1958 for Monterey and 1954 for Newport) and the two are tentpoles to celebrating the art form in North America, and worldwide.

 

So, it was with great anticipation and a kid’s excitement that I was invited to cover MJF 66 and ride along with none other than LeRoy Downs, “the Jazzcat” himself, who has been holding down one of the Monterey Jazz stages for two decades. The 2023 festival, like the first festival, was held at the Monterey Fairgrounds (also the site of the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967) the last weekend of September on those familiar 22 acres of state-owned land. Temperate days, cool nights, short distances, intimate stages (and a large arena stage) and the deepest jazz lineup west of Newport, Rhode Island that cannot be found anywhere else. Attending Monterey Jazz is like stepping into, and making, a little bit of jazz history.


MJF 66 was a transitional year for the festival, with Artistic Director Tim Jackson’s retirement after 33 incredible years, and Darin Atwater aptly filling some pretty big shoes. This festival has always been music first, last and everything in between. No big sponsorship footprint, many intimate stages and an audience that returns year after year to grab the best seats at the Arena Stage the day they go on sale. While this first timer has nothing to compare it to, my sense is the continuity of what makes Monterey Jazz, Monterey Jazz, has been pretty seamless as Darin Atwater comes on board.


Just Jazz co-founder Fred Smith and Monterey Jazz Festival Artistic Director Darin Atwater on-site at MJF 66, September 23, 2023, Monterey, California.

This guitar nerd picked the right MJF to jump in and cover, with John Scofield as the featured artist. Sco x3, (Scary Goldings on Friday, a sextet anchored by keyboardist Larry Goldings and also featuring bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, Yankee Go Home, Sco’s take on Americana and roots covers with a quartet including bassist Vicente Archer, keyboardist Jon Cowherd and drummer Josh Dion, and a solo set on Sunday) doesn’t get much better for me, but it was his breathtaking solo turn to close MJF 66 that was indelible. Friday featured Arena Stage sets by Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock, the Terence set a career retrospective I found immensely satisfying with guest turns from Dianne Reeves, Christian McBride and Lakecia Benjamin. While Herbie Hancock took the stage hand-in-hand with his grandson, Dru, on one side and Wayne Shorter’s grandson, Max, on the other. There is no photo pit in the Arena, so photographers find a spot along either side wall below the bleachers for a full stage view and I quickly sorted how to navigate to the best shots. Earlier in the day I caught a little of guitarist Lionel Loueke and vocalist Gretchen Parlato in a lilting duet. Overall, my shooting pace was relaxed and easy, which carried through the weekend.


Vocalist Gretchen Parlato and Guitarist Lionel Loueke performing at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 22, 2023, Monterey California.

Guitarist and featured artist John Scofield goes back-to-back with bassist Tal Wilkenfeld during his set with "Scary Goldings" at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 22, 2023, Monterey, California.

Trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard was featured in a career retrospective set on opening night of the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 22, 2023, Monterey, California.

Herbie Hancock in a contemplative moment on opening night of the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 22, 2023, Monterey, California.

Saturday, we arrived around 2 PM for a day that included the robust blues of Chris Cain, a guitarist I’ve known of since the 80’s, but hadn’t yet seen live, Christian McBride’s latest New Jawn (featured on both big and small stages), the rising Phoenix of Lakecia Benjamin, saxophonist (and former David Bowie sideman) Denny McCaslin, pianist Connie Han’s trio and the incomparable Dianne Reeves. And, of course, the aforementioned Yankee Go Home, of which I only managed the last 10 minutes. The jammy popular Snarky Puppy had the last word Saturday on the Arena Stage.


Blues guitarist Chris Cain during his energetic set at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 23, 2023, Monterey, California.

Bassist Christian McBride and his New Jawn were featured on two stages at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 23, 2023, Monterey, California.

Pianist Connie Han led her trio through a McCoy Tyner inspired set at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 23, 2023, Monterey, California.

West End Stage host LeRoy Downs, the "Jazzcat", has been a Monterey Jazz Festival fixture for 20 years, September 23, 2023, Monterey, California,

Saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin during her powerful set at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 23, 2023, Monterey, California.

Saxophonist Donny McCaslin at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 23, 2023, Monterey, California.

Vocalist Dianne Reeves during her vibrant set at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 23, 2023, Monterey, California.

Snarky Puppy closing out the Arena Stage at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 23, 2023, Monterey, California.

By Sunday I was right at home and late afternoon sets by pianist recent Grammy winner Billy Childs and vocalist Catherine Russell were memorable. I only caught the last song of 2023 Best New Artist Grammy winner Samara Joy at the Arena, but she had 7,000 people on their feet and with her every note. Her joy was their joy. Jamie Cullum may stand on that piano, but the dude can also play. Charles Lloyd at 85, or any age, exuded another plane through his playing in an all too brief set (he was only slotted for 40 minutes) with pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Kendrick Scott filling out his quartet. Stephen Bruner, the cross-genre bassist that goes by Thundercat, closed the Arena. And while his Zappa influenced (to my ear) soul fusion was not to everyone’s taste, his mastery of his Ibanez 6-string hollow body beast was something to behold. But it was Sco’s solo set in the tiny indoor Pacific Café Stage that will linger.


Vocalist Samara Joy captivated the Arena Stage during her afternoon set at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 24, 2023, Monterey, California.

Vocalist Catherine Russell at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 24, 2023, Monterey, California.

Pianist Billy Childs performing with his trio at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 24, 2023, Monterey, California.

Pianist and vocalist Jamie Cullum at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 24, 2023, Monterey, California.

Charles Lloyd leans in for a percussive moment with pianist Gerald Clayton at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 24, 2023, Monterey, California.

Thundercat (Stephen Bruner) brought the fusion funk to close the Arena Stage at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 24, 2023, Monterey, California.

John Scofield played an intimate solo set at the 66th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 24, 2023, Monterey, California.

Jazz in its essence is constantly shape shifting and yet immutable in its soul. As a photographer and passionate fan of this music, it is indeed a high privilege to document the two grandaddy jazz festivals of North America, and let there be no doubt, I will be back to Monterey this September and for many more to come.


Tickets for the 67th Monterey Jazz Festival to be held September 27-29 are on sale now.







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