© 2024 WBGO
Discover Jazz...Anywhere, Anytime, on Any Device.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Tim Jackson on the legacy of the Monterey Jazz Festival: ‘Jazz nirvana for the weekend’

Tim Jackson, artistic director of the Monterey Jazz Festival
Tomas Ovalle
Tim Jackson, artistic director of the Monterey Jazz Festival

The Monterey Jazz Festival is one of the world’s most famous jazz festivals and it’s an experience that as a jazz lover you don’t want to miss. It’s the longest continuously running jazz festival but soon to be missing from the landscape of the event is the man who’s been at the helm for three decades. Tim Jackson, who revitalized the Monterey Jazz Festival, says the 2023 festival will be his last as artistic director. Tim joins us to talk about his time at Monterey, the stellar lineup he has curated for this final year and what’s up next.

Tickets went on sale for the 2023 edition of the festival on April 13. Learn more here.


Pat Prescott:  My first exposure to Monterey was really through listening as a teenager to that immortal Charles Lloyd recording, Forest Flower, back in 1966. My dad played it over and over. If you've never been to Monterey, it is a charming event that's held on the 22-acre Monterey County Fairgrounds. Not only do you get to hear the best jazz musicians in the world, but you also get Monterey and Carmel along the northern California coast as well as Big Sur. That’s a bit of heaven in its own right. In addition, there are some of the most knowledgeable jazz fans that I've seen at a festival. Last year was the very first time I attended in person and we've already renewed our tickets for this year and were inspired to become Friends of the Festival. Honestly, Tim you’ve created a really magical experience.

Tim Jackson: Thank you, Pat. I like to say when you enter those gates on the Friday, which is the beginning of the festival, you enter jazz nirvana for the weekend. It's a very special place to be. We have people who've been coming for decades and you can feel there's an energy in the air. There's something to be said for that original style festival like Monterey or like Newport where everything happens in one big defined space over a very specific period of time. In our case, a three-day weekend. There's an energy that's generated that you can really feel and I think the artists feel it as well. It kind of feeds off itself and can make for a very special experience because everybody is in one environment for the entire weekend and it's mostly the same people.

I can really attest to that. There is a feeling that's happening there. You can't really describe it, but you can't miss it. It is really palpable. I guess it all began for you with Jimmy Lyons. How did you come to the festival back in 1991?

Well, my first experience at Monterey was as a musician. I'm a flute and saxophone player. My career started at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz which is about 45 miles from Monterey on the other side of Monterey Bay. I was a founder in 1975 and have remained there as the current artistic director. I made the switch from musician to running the festival because I got to know one of the board members at Monterey Jazz Festival in the early to mid-80’s. I knew about the festival, but it's funny, although it was close by, I had never attended. I was just busy with my own stuff.

This board member, Ruth Fenton, and I shared some education activities together and she invited me a couple of times. I remember seeing Ray Charles and a couple of other groups, including some great Brazilian music sometime in the early to mid-80s. In 1988 or 1989, Jimmy Lyons hired me and a Latin band that I played in to perform salsa at the festival. As a result, I experienced Monterey, both as a performer and as a patron.

In late 1990, a friend of mine in the media in Monterey, let me know that Jimmy Lyons was going to be retiring. I sent my friend who was on the festival’s board a letter even though I just assumed they had somebody picked out already to take over for Jimmy. It was my wife Lori who suggested that I send it to Ruth to let her know that I was interested. I sent her a letter and promptly forgot about it. Three or four months later, she contacted me and said, “Oh the board would like to meet with you.” I had two meetings with the board and after some interviews, they offered me the position as the new general manager (that was the title in those days). I was hired in 1991 and that’s when Jimmy retired. He did a little bit of producing on the 1992 festival and the last night we did a tribute to Jimmy. I became the general manager in 1992 doing both the artistic and administrative side. It was a pretty all-encompassing job.

When you look back at that time, what was your vision for the festival?

I wish I could tell you I had some grand vision. I don't think I'm that smart, but I intuitively knew that there was just a lot of good in the Monterey Jazz Festival. There was a very rich history and legacy as well as a lot of goodwill in the community and with the patrons.

A major priority was not to screw that up, while also honoring the legacy and contributing to its future. I’m a bit of a history buff so I went back through all the old programs so I’m well versed in the history of the festival. As far as the programming part, I think it's probably fair to say that the programming had got maybe a little bit stale over the years. As Jimmy got older, I think he relied more and more on his friends and colleagues in the industry. These are, of course, all our jazz heroes, so I'm not saying the music wasn't fantastic, but there were a lot of new artists coming up, as well as artists that hadn't been heard at Monterey.

I felt there was a real opportunity to take something like this and open it up like a flower, to spread the festival’s wings artistically, so that's what I tried to do. I tried to become a lot more inclusive in the artistic outlook of the festival while still keeping it a real jazz festival. There were some parameters but there was tremendous room for growth. Over the years, I think we were able to realize that vision. At the same time, I’ve always been interested in the production side of music and making sure that the patron experience and the artist experience on stage is good. That happens when you have a really good sound system. Also, great instruments to play, great pianos. And the same thing with the audience, so that the patrons are hearing good sound from the systems. We did a lot of work revamping the whole production side of the festival and also adding new venues. We took the festival from three venues to eight venues.

Over the years we've scaled back a little bit especially coming out of the pandemic. We were fortunate to be able to really build on the footprint of what was already there. It was always my goal to stay true to some of the original ideals of the Monterey Jazz Festival. I think the beauty is that the festival was founded in 1958 as a not-for-profit organization. I don't claim that we are the very first jazz organization to be a non-profit. Maybe we were. I don't know. But I can tell you that in 1958, most jazz was being presented in the commercial realm and not with a nonprofit outlook on things. So I'm very proud of the organization for its vision in realizing that from day one, and having a focus on education and outreach, which has been a huge part of everything we do.

I think I’m most proud of keeping some of the traditions that the festival originally had which was commissioning new music, keeping jazz education at the forefront and making sure that we could bring in artists to do a lot of special programs.

As Abby Lincoln would say, “The music is the magic.” You’ve done a great job instituting some really important things so congratulations on a job well done. You must be tired. Three decades is a long time.

Thank you. As you say, it's been a long time and I am tired but also energized because jazz is just part of our energy flow.

When you look back on your time at MJF, what are some of the accomplishments that you’re most proud of.  For instance, you've done a lot to include women, especially over the last several years.

Well, I think on the macro level, after 33 years, it's like anything in life, if you're smart, you're a perpetual student. I learn things every year and I try and challenge myself and be open. So if somebody says, “Oh, you didn't do this or you didn't do that,” instead of just being reactionary about it and go, “Well, yes, I did.” You say, “Oh, okay. Well, tell me more. What do you think?” I’m always trying to be open to being inclusive across the board. I do feel like we've done a good job. I'll always feel proud of the festivals that we've produced over the years.

One of the really great things about this festival is that as much as it is an international jazz festival, it is really a local festival. It's really plugged into the Monterey area in a way that I found kind of charming and sweet. Young people are included and they get a chance to get exposed to world-class musicians and the educational component. You're very serious about that, and I just love some of the things I saw Christian Sands and some of the other musicians doing with young people in Monterey.

I'm glad that you felt that because at its heart the Monterey Jazz Festival, and I say this with pride, we're a mom-and-pop organization. We're well connected in our community. We make sure our wider regional jazz community, which is the San Francisco Bay Area, that these artists, that are not household names or known nationally or internationally that their presence is felt at the festival.

There are some incredible jazz musicians throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and locally in the Monterey Bay area and that's really important to us to showcase them. We have to be able to relate to our own community and feel like we're serving our own community. And then of course, as you mentioned, the education programs. Monterey Jazz Festival was founded as a nonprofit organization. If you go back to the very first Festival, programs, you can see that there's a statement of principles, which is about education and outreach and making sure that the festival is a force for good in continuing the development of the music and young artists.

Therefore, we put a huge premium and investment on jazz education. You see our Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, which is our national high school All Star Band. Our regional ensembles are mainly focused in Monterey County - which is a big band, a combo, and a vocal ensemble. We have a strong relationship with some of the HBCUs throughout the country, particularly Texas Southern University. We've never paid lip service to jazz education. It's been at the forefront of everything we do. I can assure you, we've invested a lot of money over the years in jazz education, which is something that we feel good about. As with our Women in Jazz combo, as you just pointed out, you can see these young students running around the fairgrounds all weekend long performing and getting in the way of all the big-name jazz stars and asking them for tips.

I still remember my very first year at Monterey. Back then we called it the California High School All-Star Band. This was when Dizzy Gillespie was still with us and he was the artist-in-residence that year. The band had a chart for “A Night in Tunisia.” This was a big band and they were playing it and Dizzy stopped the band. He went up to the drummer and he showed him where to put the kick drum accents and the high-hat accents. I thought, “This is so incredible that this young student was being shown how it's supposed to be done by Dizzy Gillespie, the man who wrote the composition and a jazz hero to all of us.” We still do it that way, whether it be with our artist-in-residence, which has been Christian Sands for a few years. Now it's Lakecia Benjamin.

Gerald Clayton is our director of the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra and he's just a phenomenal band director, musician and artist in his own right. You just see those young students when they come in several days before the festival to start rehearsing, they're just in awe of Mr. Clayton, of all that he's accomplished. He spends the whole week with them and it isn't always just talking about music. They have all kinds of things that they want to ask him. He's so giving of his time and energy and it's those parts of the festival that I will really miss—that direct involvement.

I really relate to what you're going through, stepping away from something you've been doing and loving for a really long time, so that you can do some of the things that a full-time job commitment won't allow. As I'm making this transition, I've also been thinking back to the many opportunities that I've had and how these openings were created as others moved on from those positions. So just as Jimmy Lyons ushered in the Tim Jackson era, you're going to have the honor of making way for the next artistic director. Why is that important to you?

I've spent 33 years at the festival, so it's incredibly important to me that there's a continuum and that the person that follows me has all the tools that they need to be successful. Part of the reason that I felt it was a good time to step down was that our board of directors is in a really good place. We have a really strong board right now with excellent board leadership. It's the same with our staff at the festival. Our executive director, Colleen Bailey, is top shelf and very accomplished. I feel that for somebody coming into the role that I've had that they're going to be well positioned.

The organization is successful. There's some money in the bank. They're not walking into a crisis. The organization is strong, so I think this is a good time to pass the torch. The most important thing for me is to see the festival thrive after I've been doing this for 33 years. We're a nonprofit organization. We're here for the public good and to see the music move forward. I think anybody in my position after a certain amount of time, it's just time to give somebody else a turn, and let a new somebody sing a new song if you will, and have some fresh blood to come in and take the festival in a new direction. Maybe it's not particularly new, but it'll be different whatever it is. I think it's important to pass the torch in a responsible, professional way. That's always been a goal of mine even years ago before I would ever think about retiring. It was always—when the time comes, I want it to feel right and be a positive thing.

You’ve got to know when to leave the party. Even though you're leaving, you are going to still be the artistic advisor, at least for a little while when your replacement comes in. But you are leaving with a bang, my friend, because you have put together a pretty amazing festival for 2023. Talk a little bit about your lineup. I know you’ve got to be really excited. You did a good job on this.

Yes, I am excited. I’ll admit that I selfishly was hoping to have a lot of my old and dear friends performing at the festival this year. I was fortunate to be able to have a lot of that happen, but I think equally important is to see some of these special projects that we are doing like our commissioned piece. This year we're able to work with my friend Ambrose Akimusire, the great young trumpet player who came up through our Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. I remember when Ambrose was in high school at Berkeley High School, and came down. So I've known him and the festival has known Ambrose since he was 15 years old and watched his career trajectory with admiration and pride.

To have him come back as our commissioned artist for this year and write a really festive piece of music that's going to feature the great West African vocalist Oumou Sangaré, that's really exciting to me. Terence Blanchard is another artist whom we've worked with extensively over the years, including on our Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour. He was been an artist-in-residence. He's done so many big projects with us, but he hasn't been at the festival for a number of years, so it was really important to me to have a last hurrah with Terence. He'll be coming in and we're doing a career retrospective of a lot of his music, going back to the time when he started out with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

He'll have a lot of special guests with him including his current band, the E Collective, and the Turtle Island Quartet. We've got Christian McBride, Benny Green, Ben Wendel and Dianne Reeves, all as special guests with him. These are all special moments for Monterey that are going to happen at this festival and nowhere else.

We'll have Herbie Hancock back. The first festival that I fully produced in 1992, Herbie was there with the tribute to Miles Davis, because Miles had passed just the year before. It was important for me to have Herbie there in my last year. He's probably my biggest musical idol and inspiration. New artists like Thundercat will be with us, as well as Snarky Puppy. Samara Joy, who just won the Grammy for Best New Artist, will be with us. I've been trying to get Jamie Cullum back to the festival ever since he was with us about 10 years ago. He is a real showstopper and a fantastic performer. We'll have John Scofield as our showcase artist. John is another artist whom we haven't presented for a number of years and we're able to present John in a really meaningful way. He'll perform in a different ensemble all three days of the festival in different venues.

I think we've set up a jazz ecosystem for the weekend. I think that's going to have an arc to it from the Arena stage, starting off with Terence Blanchard and his retrospective and ending up Sunday night with Thundercat late into the evening. You're going to hear everything that's happening in jazz these days, and that to me is a serious program that also has a serious dose of fun to go with it. The root word of festival is festive. So it's got to be fun.

It is festive between the music, the great vendors that you have there, and the fantastic food. The company that we'll be keeping is pretty amazing as well. As you step off from this moment in your life, what's happening next? What are you going to be doing? I would imagine that the Kuumbwa Jazz Center is going to be part of your future.

Yes, I'll still be at Kuumbwa for a while. I continue to be and have been, throughout my MJF tenure, with Kuumbwa so I've always had a foot in both camps which has been a really fantastic experience for me. Founded in 1975, the Kuumbwa Jazz Center is one of the premier small jazz venues in the country and well-loved in our community and throughout the world. I'll continue to be there as the artistic director, not forever, but for a while longer. I'll also stay on for a while as an artistic advisor at the Monterey Jazz Festival. As I've said, “I may be leaving Monterey, but I'm not leaving the music.” As you know, Pat, once jazz is in your life, it's pretty tough to let it go. Jazz has an incredible, emotional resonance with me and hold on my life. It's been a part of my entire life, and a lot of my best friends are involved in the music.

As I've told all my friends, I'm still here. My phone will still ring. And if there's anything I can do to help out my colleagues and artist friends, I'm here to serve. I'm sure that some interesting things will come up. I'm certainly not looking for a job, but if there are projects I can do to help people, I would love to do that.

I have a feeling we'll be seeing you sitting in the audience, enjoying the show for a change.

Yeah. And you know, if something goes wrong, I can say, “Well, it's not my problem.”

The Monterey Jazz Festival 2023 is happening at the Monterey County Fairgrounds September 22nd through the 24th. I highly recommend that you don't miss it. We will make you feel very bad about it later, telling you about all of our great memories. You can visit montereyjazzfestival.org for tickets and for more information. I’ve got to tell you, Tim, I’ve enjoyed talking to you, and I'm so looking forward to seeing you in Monterey in September.

Well, likewise, Pat. We'll have to make sure to get together and toast with our favorite beverage.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Pat Prescott is a native of Hampton Virginia and a graduate of Northwestern University. After 5 years teaching middle school, she started her radio career in New Orleans, Louisiana at WYLD-FM. After a brief stint at New Orleans legendary rock station WNOE, she moved to New York to host the midday show at former heritage jazz station WRVR. During her 23 years on New York radio, Pat worked at WBLS, WLIB, The National Black News Network and contemporary jazz station CD 101.9.