Posts Tagged ‘jazz festival’

I’ve written before about my dad being in the same room as jazz royalty when he was a teenager.

This week, we’re going to leave my grandfather behind and once again travel with my dad as he goes into New York to see some of jazz’s most legendary musicians.

August 27, 1961.

Randall’s Island, in the East River, is part of the borough of Manhattan. Over the course of human history it has been home to an orphanage, a rest home for Civil War veterans, the New York Fire Department’s training academy, the U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field, and a team in the risible World Football League of the 1970s.

It also has a pretty distinguished history when it comes to live jazz.

On May 29, 1938, the island hosted the “Carnival of Swing,” a festival of 25 big bands including those of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The Carnival of Swing has been described as America’s first outdoor jazz festival, and newsreel footage makes it seem like a happenin’ event.

In the 1950s and ’60s, even more of the biggest names in the business turned out to play a series of annual festivals at Downing Stadium, a small WPA-built facility on Randall’s Island that has since been replaced.

Just look at the lineup for Aug. 27, the day my dad went: Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz and Art Blakey, to name some of the performers. Those taking the stage on other nights included Basie, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Sarah Vaughan and Cannonball Adderley.

I asked my dad what he remembered, and he offered the following:

“I distinctly remember hearing Stan Getz with his quartet.  Stan was recently back from living in Europe for a while, and was allegedly the backstage buzz (as well as the audience) buzz in terms of “what’s he sound like now?” 

Randall’s Island was clearly in the flight path of one of the Big Apple’s airports, and periodically planes would go over.  Stan wryly introduced one tune: “It’s about time for a plane to go over, so I think we’ll play a ballad,” which got a good laugh and assured everyone that his humor was intact.  I believe the consensus was that Stan still had it; this was a couple years before the Bossa Nova craze which brought him his widest popularity.

My other clear memory is the Count Basie band.  Lou and I were hundreds of feet away from the stage, maybe even the length of a football field.  The Basie band was cookin’ along when the sound system went out totally.  To this day I remember that you could still clearly hear the brass section (esp. trumpets) and drums, and they were swingin’!  Outage didn’t last long, luckily.”
(This memory may be a little unclear after 51 years. My dad and his friend believe they only attended one day. But the program linked above shows Basie and Getz playing on separate days. It is possible my dad is mixing memories from two different years of festivals, or that the running order of the shows changed after the program was printed.)
I’m not a huge jazz fan, but I recognize the performers at Randall’s Island as giants in their field. It must have been phenomenally cool for a young jazz fan to have easy access to events like this — much cooler than being a jazz fan in, say, Omaha.
My dad was a couple weeks away from starting his freshman year at college when he went to this show. I still have a ticket stub from a show I saw the summer before I started college. And I have to admit, my teenage dad had cooler taste in live music than I did.
I’m not quite sure how long the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival lasted. A quick Google search turns up a reference to a 1962 version of the festival, but not 1963.
The island was later host to a three-day “New York Pop Festival” in 1970 that featured performers like Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull and Grand Funk Railroad. It was one of Hendrix’s last U.S. performances; archival footage suggests he was not at his sharpest.
And just a few weeks ago, Randall’s Island hosted a music festival called Catalpa, whose performers’ names — TV On The Radio, Zola Jesus, Polish Ambassador and the Aviation Orange, to name a few — would have had my teenage dad and his friend scratching their heads as they tapped toes to Count Basie.
But, no matter. It’s good to know that, all these decades later, people are still flocking to Randall’s Island for a day of live music.
Maybe someday someone will blog their dad’s reminiscences of being in the second row for Zola Jesus.

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