With a brief salvo of finger snaps and a hushed meter, the musicians on the stage before me suddenly erupted with color and life. What was just seconds before a plain auditorium (where I have sat through many painstaking lectures) began to hum and breathe. The walls were alive—they must’ve been—and I couldn’t help but smile and dance in my seat.
About 65 years ago, the first production of the Monterey Jazz Festival was led by the legendary Dave Brubeck; what has followed over the years has become a worldwide celebration of jazz—its history, past and present, and the joyful anticipation of its future. I was fortunate enough to have caught a modern-day touring iteration of this year’s festival, which was right here at our very own Campbell Hall at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB).
As the instruments began taking their places in the sonic landscape, each was given a chance to introduce themselves to the audience. Christian Sands’ piano crescendoed in flying keystrokes while Dee Dee Bridgewater and Kurt Elling had a scat singing battle, their voices thundering with soulful vibrato. Lakecia Benjamin’s saxophone roared in approval, and Clarence Penn and Yasushi Nakamura kept a deceptively complicated, understated rhythm to the madness. Every so often, Penn loudly interjected—throwing a smashing snare or crashing cymbal into the uproar. He refused to be ignored.
Following an extended back-and-forth between Dee Dee and Kurt, the two singers exited the stage, handing over speaking duties to Lakecia. The NYC native announced a tribute to Alice and John Coltrane.
“It’ll be fiery,” Lakecia told the audience, “buckle your seatbelts.”
The lights turned red, and the prediction was proven correct; the room heated up as Benjamin’s saxophone screamed through octaves in expressive trills. Clarence let a showering of cymbals accompany them, and Sands sprinkled soft keys behind them. Soon, the rhythm grew urgent, and, as Lakecia raised her voice, the other musicians came close to physically abusing their own instruments.
Penn’s drums were stilted machine guns, with laden crashes pouring out over the top of the rabble. The intense, technical soul of Lakecia’s saxophone proves itself worthy to the legacy of the Coltranes—by the end of this piece, the room is hot and alive. The audience applauded and shouted its approval. Lakecia beamed with genuine joy and left the stage to Sands and his rhythm section.
Sands cooled things down by telling an incredibly personal story about meeting Dave Brubeck at age 10.
“Dave taught me this next piece in his living room,” Sands softly recounted, glancing down at the keys of his instrument and smiling to himself. “Here’s our rendition of ‘Strange Meadow Lark.'”
With the others off stage, the only melody comes from Sands’ fingertips. As he slowly brought us into the song, Nakamura and Penn joined in, adding unconventional noise and sound effects by rubbing their strings and sprinkling in chimes and soft brush taps. This song was slow, melancholic and stripped back compared to all that has come before—yet with fewer instruments on stage, there was more room for nuance, and for the smaller details to shine through. Penn and Nakamura did not simply keep time here; they were letting their instruments speak, subtly yet passionately.
Sands’ piano playing—I struggled to find the right words to describe it as I was truly transported someplace else. My eyes were wet, and my nose burned with their emotional intensity. With no words, I saw everything. I saw Sands’ life, the excitement, the passion. He told his journey from learning the piano as a young child to touring with some of the most legendary figures in modern jazz. I was touched, inspired even. As Sands let his fingers roll down his keys in soft conclusion, the crowd exploded from their silence. We all knew that we had just witnessed something incredible.
After an impressive performance of “Bye Bye Blackbird” (which Dee Dee says she used to perform with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis “way back in the day”), the whole ensemble returned to the stage for a finale. Nakamura and Penn laid down the most straightforward, danceable rhythm of the evening, and Lakecia stole the microphone from Kurt to rap a few bars. Calling for a world where we can slow down, look past our superficial differences and bond over our art and shared experience, the crowd waved their hands in time to the beat. Her message fits perfectly—this is what music, and specifically jazz, is all about.
Following an impressive shredding via Nakamura, he and Penn deconstructed the tune, breaking it all down to a ridiculously complex rhythm solo. They slowly built up, and everybody joined in for an electric, harmonious conclusion. As the evening came to an end, the whole crowd was on their feet. The group all hugged each other and laughed, coming together to bow, and thank the audience. The performance might have been over, but I could still hear the echoes of their instruments passionately lingering in the air of the hall.
Collective effervescence describes the joyous feeling of energy humans get when engaged in emotionally charged moments with others whom we share a common purpose. The energetic release was a pure, momentary escape from all aspects of life negative and/or mundane. We all know these moments are among the best. They are what we live for, and live music is one of the most powerful and accessible sources.
A wise man once told me that jazz was not revolutionary. With him, I respectfully disagree. On the surface, playing old compositions and honoring long-dead musicians does not sound revolutionary; indeed, it sounds nostalgic at best, recycled at worst. Yet a revolution is a change—an advancement in a cycle, a turning about a fixed point. Lakecia, Dee Dee, Christian and company did not play their selection of songs as they were written; they played them with nuance, with beautiful, improvised precision.
Live jazz is an organic living thing, ever-changing, ever-progressing; it is different every night, in every iteration. If anything, it is a constant revolution, down to each bar; each improvised saxophone squeak and each audible release of passion. Indirectly, too, jazz can be revolutionary. Any escape, even momentary, from the valley of chaos that is modern life allows the mind to wander and to reach its hands out from which it knows and find something which it knows not. If jazz, music, or art can be that escape, then it can most certainly be the spark to some revolutionary flame. It just takes one moment, one struck key, one harmony, one tear, one pause in this constant flurry that is life—the mind can change; everything can change—and a revolution can be born.