Monterey Jazz Festival celebrates 40 years in Japan – and China could be the next stop

As the festival in California marks its 61st anniversary with artists Norah Jones and Herbie Hancock, its sister event in Noto, Japan, celebrated 40 years; organisers hope China will be next

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2018, 3:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 September, 2018, 5:23am

Monterey, California and Noto, Japan are nearly 9,000 miles (14,484 kilometres) but they have a shared passion: jazz.

Both coastal cities – picturesque, with their individual versions of fisherman’s wharf – Monterey and Noto annually each host flagship jazz festivals that draw thousands of visitors. Every year a kaleidoscope of jazz music explodes in around-the-clock concerts by artists from all over the world.

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This month the Monterey Jazz Festival in California marks its 61st annual event with international artists including Norah Jones and Herbie Hancock. Its sister festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival Japan, just celebrated its 40th year drawing a record crowd of 6,000 in Noto during the day long event.

In some ways Monterey, with a year-round population of 30,000 and a rough 130-mile (209-km) drive south of San Francisco, seems like an unlikely place for a premiere jazz festival. But Monterey, launched in 1958, remains the world’s longest consecutively run jazz festival. Every year it is held at the Monterey Fair Grounds and draws over 40,000 over three days.

But how did jazz, which some would argue is American as apple pie and baseball, make its way from Monterey to Noto?

The birth of Monterey Jazz Festival Japan began with friendships. Monterey Jazz Festival’s founder Jimmy Lyons, a jazz radio broadcaster based in San Francisco, had connections and networks with jazz artists internationally including Japan.

As early as 1963 Lyons – who died in 1994 – brought over a number of Japanese jazz artists including Hidehiko “Sleepy” Matsumoto a baritone saxophonist to the Monterey festival in California. Some of the artists including Eiji Kitamura, a jazz clarinettist known as Japan’s Benny Goodman, encouraged Lyons to bring the beloved festival to Japan (Kitamura ultimately performed 10 times at the jazz festival).

“I think it was like a mutual endeavour where Jimmy – who knew all the greats and had been booking jazz artists for years – was initially interested in strengthening the relationship with Japan and Japanese artists,” said Paul Contos, Monterey Jazz Festival’s education director.

“At the same time the Japanese artists thought ‘hey it’d be really great for Japanese jazz artists folks to go over there to engage with Jimmy Lyons’.”

Lyons recruited more artists through the ‘60s, stepping it up in the ‘70s by taking Japanese artists to Monterey’s main stage in California. Those artists included Toshiyuki Miyama, the New Herd group, Tokyo Union Orchestra, pianists Toshiko Akiyoshi, Kotaro Tsukahara, Shigeru Morishita, Junko Moriya, and Ritsuko Endo, organist Atsuko Hashimoto, guitarist Hironobu Saito and vocalist Chika Singer.

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But as jazz declined in popularity in the US in the 1970s, it was the opposite in Japan, and the first festival organised by Lyons took place here on October 1, 1978.

Contos, a jazz educator and saxophonist who started working with Monterey Jazz Festival’s education programmes when it launched in 1984, puts the Japanese’s love for jazz down to a love of improvisation – a twist on a culture that is based on structure. Over the years Contos has worked closely with many jazz students and professional musicians in Japan.

“Japanese culture, and maybe Asian culture, are very organised and very structured societies. Trains, buses, everything runs on time. They are very civilised. But jazz is imbued with the aspect of improvisation – where the individual steps out of the ensemble and is allowed to express themselves in an environment of more freedom. I think that has been very intriguing to the Japanese mindset,” said Contos. “It’s great to see the light bulb go on.”

Jazz is imbued with the aspect of improvisation ... I think that has been very intriguing to the Japanese mindset. It’s great to see the light bulb go on
Paul Contos, Monterey Jazz Festival’s education director

Contos himself has been a big fan of the festival in Japan since its inception, and attended the festival in Noto numerous times.

The exchange of artists continued through the ‘80s leading to the decision to make the Noto festival official in 1989. The festival, while run separately of its sister festival in Monterey, still depends on teamwork from both sides. For many years, Bill Lutt, a founder of the educational tour company World Projects, promoted the festival and provided the travel and logistics for Lyons and his entourage of artists, and MJF All-Star student bands to perform in Japan.

Contos said education is a pivotal part of the festivals and in California they developed a “travelling clinician programme” where jazz musicians and educators visit local schools. Noto created a similar education programme for its local schools.

Lyons legacy continues on with the steady exchange of artists at both festivals. American jazz artists who have performed at Noto include Maynard Ferguson, Poncho Sanchez, Richie Cole, Karrin Allyson, Hank Jones, Don Menza, Bill Berry, and Bruce Forman.

In recent years big name Japanese artists who have taken the stage in Monterey include Kitamura, Hiromi, Singer, Yutaka Shiina, Aya Takazawa and Eric Miyashiro.

Contos said the festival in Noto has skyrocketed from several hundred attendees to over 6,000 now. “It’s a bigger stage and bigger whole arena, the artists have got more prestigious,” said Contos.

He also observed a trend that Japanese jazz enthusiasts are increasingly drawn to Japan’s own top artists. In recent years festival organisers have been pushing and promoting more top-tier Japanese performers.

“Japanese audiences tend to want to see Japanese jazz artists. Also it’s a little cheaper to have them than import [American] jazz artists, which is a much more costly endeavour,” he said.

The festival now extends beyond Noto with partnerships with Tomisato Jazz Festival that draws some 1,200 people, and the Kuchan Jazz Festival on the Island of Hokkaido that attracts 5,000 jazz lovers.

Monterey Jazz Festival has also forged exchange programmes and joint performances in Awajishima (Awaji island, near Kobe) with the Swinging Willow Jazz Orchestra, and Nagoya with the Free Hills Jazz Orchestra.

The jazz festival also spawned other unexpected relationships. In 1994, Monterey and Nanao became sister cities with a focus on cultural exchange. Inside Monterey’s City Hall there are framed photographs of dignitaries and visitors from Nanao and a copy of the sister city proclamation. There is also an active group called the Nanao-Monterey Friendship Association that promotes activities between both cities.

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Going forward, Contos said the focus is on educating the next generation of jazz artists and enthusiasts as early as middle school. “We are actually helping the jazz audience of the future, where is the audience for the Monterey Jazz Festival going to be 50 years from now? They are going to be the future concert goers of the Noto festival in years to come,” he said.

Monterey Jazz Festival has held exchanges and performances with Teikyo High School in Tokyo, and Okayama High School for the Arts and the Tateshina City High School Jazz Club.

For Contos seeing how far the festival in Japan has come is a dream come true.

“I have always been interested in Asia, and intrigued with helping Asian students in the learning of jazz skills,” said Contos, who has made at least 16 trips internationally to countries such as Japan and Brazil to work with jazz musicians and students.

And one never knows where the Monterey Jazz Festival will next go. There are continuing talks about bringing the festival next to China, where various associations have shown strong interest.

“My original dream has been to work with classical music students in China, teaching jazz aesthetics and Jazz performance skills,” he said.

Jazz facts

Jazz music is home-grown in the US, originating and extending from African-American communities in the late 19th century into the 20th century. Cities such as Chicago, New Orleans and Kansas City are known for jazz clubs and festivals. The US is also home to jazz legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and more recently Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.

If you go

What: Monterey Jazz Festival

Where: Monterey, California

When: September 21-23, 2018


What: Monterey Jazz Festival Japan

Where: Noto, Japan

When: Always held the last Saturday of July


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Tips for first-time Noto festival goers from Paul Contos, Monterey Jazz Festival director of education:

“The Noto Peninsula is such a beautiful area, a fascinating coastline, and is especially noted for the proliferation of natural hot springs, or onsen [many Japanese travel to this location for their vacation, and to enjoy the hot baths]. I would encourage visitors to build some time into their visit to be able to enjoy the surrounding area and the city of Nanao itself.

“Also, it does tend to be very warm at that point in summer [or hot! this summer was record-breaking heat in Japan], so I would encourage visitors to dress for warm weather, and to carry a light umbrella in case of an outbreak of rain.”