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The peaks of Playboy’s venerable jazz weekends at the Hollywood Bowl have never been easy to isolate, what with 16 hours of music and a couple of dozen bands to listen to or sleep through each June for 30 years now.
But there was one sight this reviewer will never forget: Lionel Hampton, standing in a spotlight all alone after his band was removed on the revolving stage, holding flowers in one 79-year-old hand, trying to wave them back with the other. After all, they’d already stopped the show three or four times with “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop” and “Flying Home,” the latter filling the amphitheater from the edge of the stage without mikes. No wonder he looked puzzled.
Among the other unforgettable moments through the years:
— The visiting 31-piece double big band of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, with a 12-man sax section, an 11-man-and-one-woman trumpet section and two drummers besides Watts. The thing tacked to and fro like an aircraft carrier, with the dual bassists poking at the stern and a pair of vibraharpists nudging the vessel abaft the port beam.
— Miles Davis in his Chinese “Mark of Zorro” outfit, posing agreeably at the edge of the stage for the dozens of photographers with their enormous lenses, then playing from his fusion repertoire on his gun-metal blue trumpet, all the while chewing gum.
— And there was the contrary night when the imperturbable Ray Brown did his cool but sinewy thing with his bass, shadowing the great Milt Jackson as the latter floated out those long, circling lines of his that snapped like a whip at the end of each phrase. The three of them, with Benny Green at the piano, managed to turn the 18,000-seat venue into an intimate club where satin dolls might wield their cigarette holders.
— Memorable, too, was the visit from those New York killers in the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, led by Dizzy Gillespie’s protege, trumpeter Jon Faddis. Guest tenorman Michael Brecker nailed down some fiery and flawless solo work on “The Love Supreme Suite” and the warhorse Coltrane specialty “Giant Steps.”
— Hamp and Brecker and Brown and Jackson are gone now, as are Dizzy and Miles along with too many others. It fell to relative newcomer Wynton Marsalis to eulogize Ray Charles, a few weeks after he too departed, with a musical visit to turn-of-the-century New Orleans, playing “The Old Rugged Cross” like a funeral dirge. His little band of the future got an unpolished, personal sound, like those long-dead cats who invented jazz in his hometown.
Some have feared New Orleans might be gone, and jazz, too. But every year, this event signals that neither is the case.
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