The world may be growing smaller, yet the distances still lend confusion to the view. Among the dozen American attractions seen at Sao Paulo's first International Jazz Festival, six or seven offered a fair cross-section of the present U.S. jazz scene, from Ahmad Jamal to Taj Mahal. The others were artists who didn't quite belong here, or in a couple of cases simply didn't rate a place in any consequential musical event.
The Brazilian audiences who caught the shows in person (as I did for seven nights) or on national television (as I did on the eight and last night) may well have drawn a slightly distorted impression of what constitutes jazz. The most horrendous example was the choice of a woman singer.
Sarah Vaughan was not present, though the beautiful LP of Brazilian songs she cut in Rio a year ago would have made her a logical choice. Also absent were Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Esther Philips, Cleo Laine and many others less well-known but truly representative of their craft. Instead, we were offered the egregious Etta James, whose R and B background established her in the 1950s with such hits as "Good Rockin' Daddy" and "Roll With Me Henry." Her group provided a leaden background for one of the most raucous displays of vocal and visual vulgarity it has ever been my burden to witness.
A Rio critic, commenting on a press release that likened Ms. James to Mahalia Jackson, Observed that Jackson's body must be spinning in the grave on being subjected to such a comparison.
It is difficult to say which was more depressing, Etta James' screaming or the reaction to her, for it is true that the crowd went ape over these excesses. It seemed act to follow, yet happily Al Jarreau, who closed, was rewarded with a wild ovation.
Jarreau suffered from balance problems that combined with his offhand diction to make the lyrics incomprehensible even for those in the crowd who understood English. His vocalise effects, however, particularly the percussion imitations, were delightful, and the audience flipped along with him as he persuaded his vocal chords to turn somersaults.
For Jarreau, Chick Corea, Benny Carter and several other Americans, it was a first visit to this jazz-hungry country. Carter, along with Dizzy Gillespie and others, kicked off this world series by giving a free concert at Sao Paulo subway station entrance for a very youthful audience, an event that found them both on the next evening's television news.
To the hipper Brazilian fans in the Anhembi Concert Hall, for many of whom Carter had been a legendry name, his hastily assembled backup group an occasion for special pride, consisting as it did of Nelson Ayres (pronounced Irish), a capable Brazilian pianist; Zeca Assumpcao on bass, and an American-born but Rio-based drummer, Ted Moore.
Carter closed with "Take the A Train." As soon as the stage had been reset, the University of Texas at Arlington Jazz Band opened its set with "Take the A Train." Twenty minutes later, as part of this band's dreary, corny swing-era medley, the tune was played yet a third time.
Poor programming aside, why was this band selected to represent American big-band music or college outfits, but this one, with its often abysmal arrangements and accurate yet uninspired playing was, by no means typical. One wonders who paid the huge transportation expenses, and how little more it might have cost to bring, say the Akiyoshi-Tabackin Band, or Thad Jones and Mel Lewis.
The appearance of Jazz the Philharmonic, assembled by Norman Granz, took the audience to the nitty gritty of 200-proof jazz. It is odd that JATP has not toured the United States since 1957 but is still well-known overseas. The reactions were enthusiastic, especially to Milt Jackson playing Jobim's "Wave" and to a delicate outlining by pianist Jimmy Rowies of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz." The blues tunes and ballad medleys were similar reminders of the value of maturity, as Roy Eldridge and Sweets Edison on trumpets, Zoot Sims on tenor sax, Ray Brown on bass drummer Mickey Roker (the baby of the band at 46) and Rowies all enchanted the audience during a far too short set.
The catholicity of the Brazilians' taste was illustrated in the reaction to a relatively unknow pair, Larry Coryell and Philip Catherine. Though their guitars were slightly amplified, this was essentially an acoustic set ranging from quasi-classical original works to "Father Christmas" (dedicated to Charles Mingus), and "Blues in Sao Paulo" (touches of latter-day Reinhardt as Coryell indicated the direction Django might have taken if he were still around). Coryell, an American, and Catherine, and Anglo-Belgian, are a sentive, constantly creative and mutually stimulating pair. Their relatively low-key performance was greeted with roaring calls for an encore.
Ahmad Jamal, backed by bass, drums and percussion, played comtemporary piano in a style variously delicate and demonstrative. Though he included his old hit "Poinciana," most of the tunes were originals; clean, crisp, commanding, the lefe hand often going into suspenseful contrapuntal effects.
Jamal is one of a kind and knows it; backstage, asked by a TV interviewer who his influences were, he replied: "I am my own influence. Other people don't influence me; I influence them."
Stan Getz was perhaps the American best known to the locals, on the strength of his apocalyptic 1962 "Jazz Samba" album; but Getz, who has visited Brazil four times since then, seemed determined not to be branded with the bossa nova image. Fans who came to hear "Desafinado," "One Note Samba" and "The Girl From Ipanema" were left waiting in fact, it was not until his encore that he played a Brazilian tune, Milton Nascimento's "Cancao do Sol." However, Brazilian and other Latin characteristics were detectable in three attractive compositions by his pianist. Andy Laverne.
George Duke, who was playing fine jazz piano when he came to Brazil in 1971 with Cannoball Adderley but has since been going steadily downhill artistically, did his plastic Las Vegas disco-funk act. "This isn't even jazz-rock," said American musicologist Nat Shapiro. "It's punk jazz."
Chick Corea, during a typical show with a small group, paid homage to his hosts by playing a new composition, "Hello Brazil," that sounded as if it should have been called "Hello Mexico."
Finally, there was John McLaughlin. Before his performance, McLaughlin talked loftily to a woman TV interviewer about music as a bridge between cultures. He spoke about his various shifts of musical direction in a manner that suggested the handing down of a sermoin from the top of Corcovado.
He came onstage at 11:30. The first 35 minutes were devoted to two drone-based works, with an occasional shift into a peripherally Brazilian beat. Al Shankar, his violinist, who later played tamboura, is the best musician in the combo. The keyboard player, Stu Goldberg, rambled from classical impressionism to wearisome funk and florid, flawed Art Tatum. Keith Jarrett could cut him with his wrists tied together.
The music went on and on and on and on. At one point McLaughlin played a few bars of the 1942 pop song "Brazil," whether as a put-on or not it was hard to determine. A highly skilled, protean musician, he has an inexcusable inclination toward prolixity.
At 1:17 a.m. the TV camera broke away to a backage interview with Hermeto Paschoal, who then went on to sit in with McLaughlin. The latter ahd been onstage for well over two hours when blessed relief came to me in the form of sleep. I awoke to a test pattern and found out the next day that the concert had ended somewhere around 3:30 a.m. I had missed the final act, a big dance band from Recife.
The Jazz at the Philharmonic had been issued strict orders to confine itself to 40 minutes, whereas McLaughlin apparently had no time limit; this was an indication of the festival's questionable priorities. Fortunately it was agreed all around that lessons have been learned, and that next year the talent will be more carefully selected and paced.
I don't think it is essential that jazz festival confine itself to pure jazz. In fact, some of the most intriguing music of the week was provided on opening night by an Argentinian, Astor Piazzolla, who plays the bandoneon and is said to have "revolutionized the tango." I heard no tango and no jazz, but much inspired, harmonically adventurous music.
The sine qua non elements in any jazz festival are coherence, artistic honesty, authenticity, and an awareness of when to get through. After 24 years of jazz festivals I have yet to see one that completely achieved these objectives. Maybe Sao Paulo next year?