All That Jazz

A tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of the legendary Newport Jazz Festival is coming to town

When discussing the legacy of jazz music during the second half of the last century, our attention turns sooner or later to the influence of the Newport Jazz Festival, which was founded in 1954 in Rhode Island by jazz promoter George Wein.

The festival has been the site of historic performances by jazz giants from Billie Holiday to Bill Evans, from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis, from Lester Young to Archie Shepp, and from Thelonious Monk to Dave Brubeck. Even the great Duke Ellington revived a flagging career with his orchestra's explosive performance at Newport in 1956. Elements of that performance are documented on the album, Ellington at Newport, which has become one of jazz's classics.

The festival, its ancillary events and programs show no sign of stalling as the tradition continues into the 21st century. Tucsonans will get a taste of Newport when the festival's 50th anniversary tour comes to the UA's Centennial Hall on Tuesday, March 9.

The lineup is an exciting one, teaming old-school veterans with young lions. The caliber of these players is without question: tenor saxophonist Lew Tabackin, pianist Cedar Walton, clarinetist Ken Peplowski, guitarist Howard Alden, vocalist Lea DeLaria, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash.

Although previously announced, star trumpeter Terence Blanchard (composer of many a movie score and colleague of the famed Marsalis clan) will not appear on the bill because of medical reasons.

It was announced last week that when the West Coast leg of the tour opens--this Sunday night, March 7, in Santa Fe--Blanchard's replacement will be up-and-coming trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, who won the "Rising Star on Trumpet" award last year in Down Beat magazine's critics poll.

Although only 27, Pelt already has played with such notable artists as Jimmy Heath, Nancy Wilson, Jimmy Cobb, Wayne Shorter, Ravi Coltrane, Roy Hargrove, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Bobby Short and Cassandra Wilson. Of Pelt, the Village Voice has raved, "The hot new trumpeter has musical personality that fits his instrument: intrepid, convincing, resolute."

Veteran clarinetist Peplowski is looking forward to hearing Pelt, with whom he has not worked before. He spoke to the Weekly last week in a phone interview from his New York home.

"George Wein really has a knack for not only putting together people of like minds, but also throwing together people whose playing contrasts, so there will be some surprises," Peplowski said.

He has nothing but praise for the other artists on the bill.

"Cedar Walton and Lew Tabackin are living legends," he said. "Peter Washington is one of the hardest-working bass players on the scene, and Lewis Nash--I did an album with him that came out last year--is a great guy with a good sense of humor.

"Lewis is not just a drummer who is good at keeping time; he is so good that he makes the people playing with him listen so closely that you have to completely re-evaluate everything you're playing."

Guitarist Alden also is a longtime friend and collaborator of Peplowski, and the two musicians live in the same Manhattan building. "His apartment is just below ours," Peplowski said.

Peplowski has played on Newport bills many times in the past--on European tours and at the annual festival, which these days is called the JVC Jazz Festival. "George has been really good to me over the years," he said.

As a kid growing up in Cleveland, Peplowski "always" dreamed of becoming good enough to play Newport. He remembers seeing the acclaimed 1960 documentary film, Jazz on a Summer's Day, about the festival and wishing he could play there.

The musicians on the bill that comes to Tucson will plan about half of the performance in advance, while the other half will be called out on the spot. They'll balance standards with original material, too, Peplowski said.

"That way, no one show will be same as another. That's the beautiful thing about jazz music--you can literally do a different show every night.

"We'll change things up quite a bit. There'll be two ensemble numbers, and then maybe I'll have the feature, or one of the other players will have the feature, then a couple more ensemble numbers. It'll go on like that."

Although a longtime fan of rock and pop music, Peplowski laments how concerts by most contemporary mainstream artists have become so tightly structured, right down to the between-song patter.

"I've been a big Beatles fans for many years. But on Paul McCartney's last tour, he messed up the lyrics to that song from Abbey Road, 'You Never Give Me Your Money.' And then he spontaneously sang a verse about messing up the lyrics. It was clever, you know?

"But it turns out that he messed up those lyrics like that every night, and then every night, he sang the same 'spontaneous' verse about messing up the lyrics."

So it's understandable why Peplowski still values the anything-can-happen improvisational qualities of the jazz form and is saddened by the emptiness of today's so-called youth culture.

"Now you can go down to any mall in America and buy a fake Mohawk wig and get a Grateful Dead T-shirt without ever being a part of those cultures. I think it's the first time in a long time that young people are not rebelling against the status quo in music. I think of jazz as the last anti-conformist music left in America."

After Peplowski finishes the month-long Newport tour, his plate will be anything but empty.

With his regular quartet, he'll finish his latest album, which is slated for release during the next couple of months. He'll guest star on some big-band tributes to immortal swing clarinetist Benny Goodman, a regular task for which he's highly in demand. He'll hit the summer festival circuit, too.

But Peplowski's especially excited about a potential gig in front of the King of Thailand, for which he recently received a royal invitation. "This guy's 76 years old and apparently a big jazz fan, and he loves the clarinet! We're working on scheduling that now."

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