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More Sounds Of Summer : The August Festival Circuit

When Ira Gershwin wrote, "Summertime, and the livin' is easy," he must have been thinking of music everywhere. Every August in America, and the jazz festival season peaks. So many settings encourage listening, socializing, and song.

The 50th Anniversary Newport Jazz Festival was, as I write, last weekend. New York City's 11th annual free Charlie Parker Festival—with drummer Terri Lynn Carrington's post-bop time-shifting band featuring pianist Mulgrew Miller and altoist Frank Morgan backed on such Parker classics as "Night In Tunisia" by pianist John Hicks, bassist Curtis Lundy, and drummer Billy Hart, tenor saxist Jimmy Heath premiering a new composition, and Kenny Garrett blowing fierce alto to end a blue sky afternoon—was yesterday, in Tompkins Square Park right outside my apartment door. Lincoln Center Out of Doors has presented Sonny Rollins for free at Damrosch Park, and next week, Chick Corea. The 26th annual mostly free Chicago Jazz Festival starts next week, running for five days. The Tanglewood Jazz Festival takes place in the lovely bandshell, renovated barn, and grounds of an estate where the Boston Symphony holds its summer rehearsals, educational institutes, and classical concerts. And there are many more opportunities to be outside, living easy.

Jazz fests are different everywhere, and to each producer, musician, audience member. But they all began in one. In the 50s Newport was a summer resort for wealthy people whose most ambitious pastimes were maintaining enormous mansions and racing sailing sloops. Black musicians visited rarely, perhaps to play garden parties (for a gloss on this, rent High Society, the intermittently entertaining 1956 musical remake of The Philadelphia Story with music by Cole Porter, starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, and Louis Armstrong). George Wein, founding father of the Newport fest and all subsequent spinoffs, changed that. How? See Jazz on a Summer's Day, the hyped-up documentary of the fest in 1956, or check the new three-CD Columbia compilation of performances from the fests over the years by Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Cannonball Adderley, and many other giants of jazz's golden age for examples.

In the 60s, thinking Newport was Woodstock, unruly young crowds broke down fest fences to hear jazz, rock, blues, and pop acts for free, and as a result got the fest banished to Manhattan (Rhode Island's loss, our gain). But the jazz fest, which today is reasonable but not free—tickets for one day cost between $60 and $75, including parking, and lodging in town can cost $150 to $400 per night—returned to Newport in the 80s, eventually winning sponsorship by the Japanese Victor Corporation (JVC). To celebrate its half-century Wein made a point of this time producing a weekend of pure jazz (no Kenny G, Femi Kuti or Buddy Guy), featuring veteran jazzers such as bassist Percy Heath and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who were at the fest in 1954, 80-year-old strong drummer Chico Hamilton (featured in Jazz on a Summer's Day), and pianist-composer Dave Brubeck, who debuted a new spiritual concerto embracing all faiths.

Wein, who missed most of the fest to heal from stomach surgery, booked younger stars, too. Harry Connick Jr. received a wild ovation from a massive number of loyal fans that sat for his show on the courts of the International Tennis Hall of Fame through pouring rain. On the main stage, trombonist Frank Lacy sang "Don't Let It Happen Here", sentiments true to the political attitudes of Charles Mingus, in front of the Mingus Dynasty big band. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove and alto saxophonist Bobby Watson fronted a hot combo of former Jazz Messengers in tribute to the late drummer Art Blakey.

On an auxilary stage sponsored by Dunkin' Donuts, trumpeter Dave Douglas led a quartet with trombonist Roswell Rudd, who is enjoying a late life comeback, and drummer Barry Altschul, back in the U.S. after decades in Paris (Brad Jones played bass). In a small tent behind booths filled with crafts vendors, pianists Bill Charlap and Jason Moran played solo, and Geri Allen duo'd with her trumpeter husband Wallace Roney.

In the late afternoon Sunday, while Hurricane Charlie threatened to come down on the promontory that holds the fest site, Fort Adams State Park, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (without Wynton Marsalis, who reportedly has a lip infection that will keep him off his horn until December) offered its routinely polite, correct and historically-minded program of compositions by Armstrong, Ellington and Thelonious Monk, then brought out guests. Violinist Regina Carter and vibist Gary Burton were pleasant enough. But it took tenor saxophonist James Carter to truly redeem the hour, with his 31 highly charged choruses of Ellington's "Crescendo and Diminuendo in Blue".

In 1956, when Ellington's orchestra was at an ebb, tenorist Paul Gonsalves revived Duke's repute by inveighing a thrilling 26 choruses on that theme at Newport; Count Basie's drummer Papa Jo Jones urged him on from the side of the stage, and in the audience, a sophisticated lady famously began a hypnotic dance. Now, in my opinion, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra might almost be called Preservation Hall North—its renditions of classic jazz are suitable for framing, as music to recall—but no one has told Carter that jazz is so over, and consequently he always seems out for blood. Prior to LCJO, onstage with earnest trumpeter Roney, Geri Allen, Ndugu Chancler on drums, and Bill Cosby (at whose whim this ensemble convened) hitting occasional percussion, Carter used his soprano sax like a foil in a duel, to deliver small but wicked cuts.

When Ornette Coleman performed his intensely thoughtful, soulful, and penetrating improvisations in harmolodic disunison with bassists Tony Falanga (mostly bowing) and Greg Cohen (mostly plucking) and his son, Denardo, drumming furiously fast, irregular rhythms, the sea gulls that had hovered off shore, at the edge of the heavy, threatening cloud bank, flew in close to swoop over and about the stage. When Ornette finished, the birds went back out to sea. They should have stayed: Wayne Shorter (especially on his piece "Aung San Suu Kyi", named for the Burmese human rights activist), Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, and drummer Brian Blade embarked on about half a dozen highly improvised pieces that were much more engaging than their efforts last June at Carnegie Hall during Wein's JVC Jazz Festival New York.

JVC in New York is a different model for a fest, with discrete concerts held in the city's most prestigious venues, at high ticket prices, with subsidiary events in the clubs and midtown Bryant Park. Jazz fests don't have to be outdoors—they can indeed occur in dark clubs. To open the third annual trumpet festival curated by Dave Douglas and Roy Campbell at Tonic in downtown Manhattan, former cornetist Butch Morris directed 21 brass players through three of his patented spontaneous "conductions". He used no score, only his repertoire of hand signals that command the individuals, groups of them, or the entire ensemble to start, stutter, pause, change tempo, remember a passage, repeat a passage, sustain a sound, crescendo, decrescendo, pan, solo, produce counterpoint, suggest a shape, return to motif, and end. In the course of 20 years, Morris has refined the concepts and techniques he employs in these conductions, and the results are fascinating, if you listen without expectations, just following their course.

Come to think of it, that's a good way to attend jazz festivals, wherever they are, whatever form they take. All these people, all this music. Anything can happen. If we're lucky, it does.