Birth of a Jazz Institution

Dizzy Gillespie, 1965
Dizzy Gillespie, 1965

The idea for a jazz festival at Monterey came from Jimmy Lyons (1916-1994) and Ralph Gleason (1917-1975) in the mid 1950s. Gleason was the jazz critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Columbia University, he moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a free-lance critic before becoming the first full-time jazz journalist for a U.S. newspaper. Lyons began his career in radio in 1939, moving to San Francisco in 1948 to work for KNBC, but later a move to Big Sur placed him in closer proximity to Monterey. In considering a site for a jazz festival, he eventually settled on the Monterey County Fairgrounds as the ideal location. He sought the support of the local business community and civic groups. They were enthusiastic about the idea, and the Monterey City Council eventually approved the necessary permits for the festival at a meeting that featured a performance by Dave Brubeck.

Millar, Brubeck, Desmond in 1958
George Millar, Dave Brubeck, and Paul Desmond in 1958

It took two years to pull the entire event together. The first festival in 1958 included a wide range of jazz styles, from the traditional New Orleans jazz of Louis Armstrong, to the big-band sound of Harry James and Shelly Manne, to the 1950s cool jazz and bop of Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Rollins, Buddy DeFranco, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. The Monterey Jazz Festival Symphony accompanied the Modern Jazz Quartet and played Max Roach's Toccata for Jazz Percussion and Orchestra, as well as classical music pieces by Bartók, Stravinsky, and Hindemith. One of the most poignant performances was Billie Holiday's set of six songs, one of her last appearances before her untimely death nine months later. The first festival was an artistic and a financial success, and the governing board decided to use the profits to establish a chair of jazz studies and a fund for music scholarships at Monterey Peninsula College, the beginning of the festival's educational mission.

Duke Ellington, 1965
Duke Ellington, 1965

In 1959 Lyons asked pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet to serve as the festival's artistic consultant, a position he held until 1982. Lewis's guidance complemented Lyons's efforts by bringing innovation as well as major performers to the event. He initiated a program that commissioned new jazz compositions specifically for the festival; works such as "Suite Thursday" (1960) by Duke Ellington, "Evolution of the Blues Song" by John Hendricks (1960), "Gillespiana" (1961) by Lalo Schifrin, "Perceptions" (1961) by J.J. Johnson, and The Real Ambassadors (1962) by Dave and Iola Brubeck came to fruition through this program. Third Stream, a new label for the fusion of jazz and classical music coined by Gunther Schuller in 1957, was a feature of the early festivals. Schuller himself participated in the 1959 and 1961 festivals as both composer and conductor. In 1960 the board issued a statement of eight guiding principles that set out the major programs and aspirations for the festival. In just three short years with Lyons's commitment and enthusiasm, Lewis as the music consultant, and a set of guiding principles, the festival had a foundation that would insure not only its survival but also its growth into a major international jazz event.

Millar/Desmond/Brubeck photo by Arthur McEwan; Gillespie and Ellington photos courtesy of the Monterey County Herald