When Stanford Got Its Groove

A half-century after a group of dedicated undergraduates brought the great names in jazz to campus, the project's director remembers the Stanford Jazz Year.

September/October 2015

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When Stanford Got Its Groove

Photo: Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service

Shortly after 2 p.m. on Sunday, October 10, 1965, Louis Armstrong stepped onto the stage of Frost Amphitheater to warm applause from an audience of 4,500. Some were jazz fans, but many were new to the music. Over the next seven months, Stanford would host the most seminal figures in jazz history, performers who were known by just one name: Duke, Ella, Monk, Trane, Dizzy, Ray, Miles.

That afternoon, Armstrong was tired. He had played four concerts in the last seven days. He was 64, but he looked 20 years older. He sat on a small chair behind Frost's acoustical shell, a bandanna covering his head, his eyes closed. After his introduction, he removed the bandanna and slowly rose from his chair. As he turned the corner and walked onto the stage, he came to life, miraculously transforming into Satchmo, perhaps the most well-known jazz musician in the world.

After an energetic two-hour performance that included two encores, Armstrong retired to his trailer behind the stage and was asleep within minutes. When the crowd had thinned, Armstrong and his wife,Lucille, retired to the newly reopened Faculty Club, where they spent the night.

The Jazz Year staff was jubilant. With seven other undergraduates, I had spent the previous eight months collecting films and photographic essays, booking lectures, and negotiating contracts and venues for the live performances that would make up the Stanford Jazz Year.Our celebration didn't last long. Someone had brought a bottle of champagne, but Stanford was a dry campus and we were reluctant to open it. It was just as well; within a few hours, we were hard at work preparing for the next concert, which was scheduled for just three weeks later.

Duke and Ella

In the summer, we had debated whether to book Duke Ellington or Ella Fitzgerald for the last outdoor concert of the fall. Duke was, well, Duke, the elegant, charismatic figure who had played a central role in the big band era of jazz in the '30s. But Ella was the Queen, the most revered jazz singer of her day. Both would draw the kinds of crowds that meant Frost was the only option for a venue, and Stanford's late September start date and the expected November rains meant we had time for only one more concert outdoors.

Someone suggested that we present both artists in a single concert. The likelihood that the artists' schedules could be coordinated seemed remote. But if we could pull it off, we would succeed in presenting the three most famous artists in the early jazz of the '30s and '40s before moving on to the modern jazz artists of the '50s and '60s.

Jazz - Ella on stageDuke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald share a lighthearted moment while the Jazz Year staff observe offstage. (Photo: Courtesy The Estate of Leo Holub)

To our surprise, the artists liked the idea and pressured their agents to make it happen. The booking gave their agents an opportunity to get the artists together for the first time since 1958; a week before their appearance at Stanford, the two met in Los Angeles to record Ella at Duke's Place, whose cover was shot backstage in Frost.

The day before the concert, Duke invited some of us to the band's rehearsal at Basin Street West in San Francisco. We sat a few feet from the stage, so close we could feel the rhythm section in our chests. The band members stepped down during breaks to talk with us about the numbers they were rehearsing. They were eager to explain their music to us, and we were thrilled to be students.

A crowd of 6,700 turned out the next day on another perfect fall afternoon at Frost. The two bands each played a set, followed by a third set together. Duke and Ella's fondness for each other was apparent onstage in their banter and frequent embraces, but their chemistry was even more evident in their music; his dynamic swing music and her smooth vocals spoke to each other in songs like "Imagine My Frustration."

After the concert, the two talked outside their trailers for more than an hour. Then we drove Ella and her entourage to the airport while the Ellington band returned to their rooms at the local Cabana Hotel. (Two months before, the Beatles had stayed at the Cabana before their performance at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.)

The Jazz Year staff joined Ellington's band for dinner at the Cabana that night. I sat next to Paul Gonsalves, a saxophonist who had spent most of his career with Ellington. He talked openly with me about his experiences with addiction and racism, and the impact they had on his music. His was not the only inspiring story I would hear that year of an artist's struggle to stay faithful to his craft through difficult times.

In the San Francisco Chronicle the next morning, jazz critic Ralph Gleason described Duke and Ella's concert as "just about the most glorious afternoon of music I have ever experienced."

Jazz - Frost AmphitheaterA crowd of 6,700 came to hear the Ellington-Fitzgerald concert. (Photo: Courtesy The Estate of Leo Holub)

Bold Ambition

The fall quarter finished, we had time to take stock. I was ecstatic. Persuading the board of the 3-year-old Tresidder Union to sponsor a yearlong jazz program had not been easy, but bringing the music I loved to an academic setting and presenting it in its historical and cultural context had been a longtime dream of mine. I had fallen in love with jazz as a child, growing up in Peru, Germany and Iran. In these countries, American music in general—and jazz in particular—was revered. But in the United States, even in the 1960s, jazz was not generally seen as an art form worthy of serious recognition and study.

Fortunately, we received great support from Tresidder Union founding director Chet Berry, whose forward-looking ideas had led to his being named president of the Association of College Unions International in 1959. Berry envisioned Tresidder not as a student union but as a campus union—a vibrant center that would bring important visitors to Stanford for talks, lectures, small concerts and exhibits. The jewel in the crown was Tresidder's sponsorship of an annual project of academic interest. In its first three years, the Union had sponsored projects on Shakespeare, da Vinci and the American Civil War. I proposed that Tresidder sponsor a project devoted to jazz (which, according to my estimates, would cost more than the three previous years' projects combined).

The idea met with resistance from several administrators and faculty members, some of whom worried that jazz would attract the "wrong element" to campus. Others felt the subject wasn't serious enough for the attention of an elite university.

But having grown up abroad, where jazz artists were held in much higher esteem, I thought jazz was one of the least understood and least acknowledged parts of American history. Its innovation, energy, spontaneity and irreverence reflected America's character. And most jazz artists were black, at a time of great racial strides in the United States. The subject of jazz was hardly trivial.

Berry took the Jazz Year naysayers head-on. Other faculty members came for­ward to support us. And Gleason, the nationally respected jazz and cultural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle (and later the co-founder of Rolling Stone), agreed to serve as the Jazz Year's unpaid consultant after I knocked on the front door of his Berkeley home.

While a few key adults advised us, this was an entirely student-run pro­ject. I assembled a staff made up of hard-working, determined and optimistic young men and women. They had to be optimists, given the bold aspirations for the coming year. They needed to be gracious, because I hoped to host the artists in a very personal way. They did not need to be jazz fans. In fact, their naivete about jazz helped us plan activities for an  audience unacquainted with the music and its history. 

Modern Jazz

Jazz - logoPhoto: Courtesy Rick BaleMany of the bookings we made that year had their challenges. Our budget was limited, so our approach was to present ourselves as a student project and point out that a Sunday-afternoon concert at Stanford would allow the artists to make other appearances at San Francisco venues, which we could help arrange. We also tried to convince the artists' agents of the historical significance of our project, an appeal that universally failed to move hard-bitten New York agents.

Our first signing for the winter quarter was the pianist Thelonious Monk. His agents were uninterested in an inexpensive booking 3,000 miles away, but Gleason suggested I appeal to Monk directly. I called the number Gleason gave me and heard Nellie Monk's voice on the other end of the line. She sounded reluctant when I asked to speak to her husband, but she put him on the phone. My conversation with Monk lasted only a few minutes, and I understood the rumors about his mental illness as he struggled to find words and reason. But Nellie called me back that evening to say that her husband had liked what he heard and wanted to come. She said she would work with the agency to make it happen. And she did.

We hoped to book the saxophonist John Coltrane in a double bill with Monk and had been negotiating with Coltrane's agents since May. But as Christmas approached, Coltrane still hadn't signed a final contract for the January 23 concert. Most of the Jazz Year staff were working through winter break, and we cheered when a Western Union telegram arrived on Christ­mas Eve confirming Coltrane's participation. We somehow persuaded the printer to work over the holidays to print all the promotional materials, concert notes and tickets for the winter concert at the 1,600-seat Memorial Auditorium. Tickets sold out just four days after winter quarter began.

The hours leading up to the Monk-Coltrane show were tense. In the morning, Nellie Monk called to say that her husband had missed his flight. He missed a second flight, and then a third. He caught the fourth flight, and our staff met him at the San Francisco airport and made a frantic dash down the Peninsula, delivering Monk to MemAud moments before showtime. It was 30 minutes later when he went onstage, but the expectant crowd didn't seem to mind. Monk played a short, sweet set to loud applause, followed by two encores.

Forty minutes later, John Coltrane, who had also arrived late, began his performance. Coltrane and his sidemen had shown up with an entourage of more than 20 odd-looking folks dressed in leather and snakeskin. They looked like the Merry Pranksters of jazz. Coltrane performed for more than an hour to a decidedly underwhelmed audience. By 1966, Coltrane's style had evolved away from the more familiar sound of "My Favorite Things" and "A Love Supreme" to an atonal style with complex, random-sounding rhythms. And Coltrane had a detached air onstage that seemed to match his strange new music. Many in the audience walked out during the performance, and those who remained gave the group tepid applause. A little more than a year later, Coltrane, who would eventually be recognized as one of American music's most influential figures for his contributions to jazz, was dead at the age of 40 from liver cancer.

The next winter concert went more smoothly. The cerebral Modern Jazz Quartet, popularly known as the MJQ, played a predictably superb show. Band leader John Lewis, a classically trained pianist, narrated the concert for the audience, describing jazz as a unique blending of European melodies and chordal structures with African rhythms. He expanded on these topics in a Tresidder lecture the next day; it was one of the most highly attended talks of the year.

The MJQ was followed by the magnetic Dizzy Gillespie, whose band they had once been a part of. Gillespie was a charismatic character. He could make anyone laugh—even the MJQ, whose members never cracked a smile onstage except at Gillespie's antics. Gillespie's performance, which was equal parts brilliant trumpet playing and stand-up comedy, ended the winter schedule on a high note.

Rhythm and Blues

For the spring quarter, we wanted to present blues and rhythm and blues—both first cousins to jazz. Could we get the legendary Muddy Waters, the Mississippi guitarist and singer who had migrated north and was now influencing British rock 'n' rollers (notably the Rolling Stones)? To our surprise, negotiations with Waters's agent took just a few days and an appearance was scheduled for April 22.

When we picked up the band at the airport, we were surprised to see them dressed in tuxedos. Waters later told me they had assumed the audience at an elite institution would be "dressed to the nines," and they didn't want to be unprepared. He also told me that it was the band's first trip to the West Coast and that a couple of of his sidemen had never flown on an airplane. The concert was held at the 350-seat Tresidder Union lounge, but more than 500 people showed up, spilling out into the hallway and onto the outside deck. Luckily, the fire marshal was a blues fan. The concert didn't disappoint him or an enraptured audience.

Jazz - Muddy WatersJazz Year staff arrive at Tresidder from the San Francisco airport with Muddy Waters and his sidemen. (Photo: Courtesy The Estate of Leo Holub)

Two days later, Ray Charles appeared in the last outdoor concert of the year, on what came to be known as Blues Weekend. Our signing of Charles had been the most risky booking of the year. In August of 1965, Charles was awaiting sentencing on a conviction for narcotics possession. That fall he had completed a drug rehabilitation program, but few venues had been willing to take a chance on his new sobriety. Charles clearly appreciated our confidence in him and spent an hour before the show graciously signing autographs and talk­ing with Jazz Year staff members and university administrators.

I was more nervous around Ray Charles than I had been around any of the year's other legendary performers, and not just because of the controversy. Charles had been the greatest of my idols in high school. My friends and I had held dance parties devoted entirely to his music. I introduced myself and awkwardly extended my hand to offer him a Coke on the hot day, forgetting in my nervousness that he was blind! To my horror, I spilled the Coke all over his suit. But Charles just laughed a little under his breath and calmly returned to his dressing room, reappearing in a clean suit. He leaned over to me and whispered, "I don't really like Coke, anyway." Moments later, he went onstage before the more than 6,000 fans who filled Frost despite the 90-degree heat.

Our last concert of the year featured trumpeter Miles Davis, arguably the most influential jazz musician of the era. I eagerly extended my hand to Davis as he entered MemAud, saying, "Welcome to Stanford University, Mr. Davis!" Davis, whom Gleason later told us suffered from performance anxiety and often threw up before going onstage, brushed past me muttering a string of profanities. His 20-year-old drummer, Tony Williams, trailed behind Davis, issuing apologies to all. Davis began his first set with his back to the audience, but then he relaxed into a wonderful performance that included the sweet "My Funny Valentine" as well as some short pieces that presaged his evolution to the more avant-garde Bitches Brew several years later. The audience, having grown sophisticated over the course of the year, appreciated the full repertoire.

And then it was over. Our 17-member student staff had presented 12 concerts and eight major lectures in nine months. In spite of the costly performers and low ticket prices (between $1 and $3 for students, which was low even in the '60s), the Jazz Year came out just $1,000 short of breaking even; the main reason for the deficit was the cost of telephone calls to New York.

Jazz - Ella ReviewPhoto: Courtesy Rick BaleAmazingly, while having worked up to 30 hours a week during the year, I grad­uated. So did the other seniors on staff, many of whom went on to colorful careers in a variety of settings. Among them was technical director Al Heineman, '66, who, with Gleason, did all of the writing for the Jazz Year and became a writer, professor and editor of the San Francisco Review of Books. Bob Fellmeth, '67, whose analytical mind solved many logistical issues that year, got a law degree from Harvard and became one of Ralph Nader's original Nader's Raiders. And Sally Budd, '67, who headed the reception committee that greeted the artists and arranged all the details that made them feel welcome, moved to India and has received guests from all walks of life in her role with organ­izations dedicated to rural employment for women.

Looking back, as passionate as I was about jazz, I was too consumed by logistics like making sure the artists were on time and the sound system was working properly to give the music my full attention. But I remember well the naive audacity and optimism we students had, and the encouragement we got from a few key administrators, staff and faculty. I remember the graciousness of the artists, and our mutual awe—theirs at being embraced by an elite American university, and ours at hosting them. For many who experienced it, the Stanford Jazz Year meant that culturally, jazz had arrived. For me, it would mean a lifetime of sweet memories.

Rick Bale, '66, PhD '72, is an emeritus adjunct associate professor at the Stanford School of Medicine.

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