JJ 09/81: North Sea jazz festival 1981 report

Forty years ago Mike Hennessey revelled in the glorious, organised chaos of the Hague's jazz hypermarket. First published in Jazz Journal September 1981

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Albert Mangelsdorff - 'a most adventurous approach, using overtones and vocal sounds as orchestral punctuations'. He is seen here at Jazz Expo 1970. Photo by Harry Monty

The essential thing is not to panic. What you do is find a nice quiet corner – there is one somewhere in the building, I’m told – sit down with your North Sea Festival time­table and work out which of the 15 events going on at any given moment you wish to see. Then – and this is the real secret – you go to see something else, on the grounds that most of the other 9,999 people will have picked the same concert as you did.

This 6th North Sea Jazz Festival, held in the Hague Congress Centre, Holland (July 10-12), was even more impossible to cover than its predecessors, because it had seven concert rooms, a rooftop marquee, a garden pavilion and two cinemas showing jazz films – apart from a number of free concerts, jazz videotape projections and an arcade of record, jazz book and instrument shops.

Organiser Paul Acket tells me that 600 musicians took part this year – but even they were outnumbered by the drinks (137,000), sandwiches (50,000), sate sticks (35,000) and salt herrings (7,000) that passed through multi-national alimentary canals with various degrees of speed and difficulty over the weekend.

In many ways a magnificently organised shambles, the North Sea festival is frustrating, exhausting but also enor­mously enjoyable. A good spirit of live-and-let-live exuberance prevails and while comfortable listening conditions are at a premium and the acoustics of some of the halls are less than impeccable, the concen­tration of so much musical talent in one building at one time and the joy of being able to flit (or, in my case, stumble laboriously) from one session to another at will are considerable compensations.

To walk into the Bel Air Hotel – just a hundred yards or so from the Congress Centre – and see congregating in the bar luminaries like Dexter, Dizzy, Oscar, Sarah, James Moody and Arnett Cobb, is a most agreeable experience

To walk into the Bel Air Hotel – just a hundred yards or so from the Congress Centre – and see congregating in the bar luminaries like Dexter, Dizzy, Oscar, Sarah, James Moody and Arnett Cobb, is a most agreeable experience for any jazz enthusiast. And when Dizzy groups together the hairless heads of Tony Scott, Kirk Lightsey and Eddie Vinson for a photograph which, from above must have looked like a pawnbroker’s sign, you have the distinct feeling that the North Sea Jazz Festival can’t be all bad.

Of course it’s a bit galling for Shirley Horn to see people sneaking away before the end of her set in order to get a patch of floorspace near the stand for the Dizzy Gillespie set – and then for Dizzy to see people sloping off to catch the last half of the Heath Brothers’ session . . . and so on. But, on the other hand, with so many musicians milling around, you sometimes get some impromptu developments – such as Monty Alexander sitting in with Milt Jackson, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet and Dizzy Gillespie in a tribute to Lionel Hampton, and Joe Newman popping up to share front-line duties with Clark Terry and Dutch saxophonist Harry Verbeke backed by the most impressive Rob Agerbeek Trio.

As an indication of the daunting challenge that covering the North Sea Festival represents, I recorded a detailed note of my insane itinerary on the last day of the event. As someone who regards having to get up from the chair to switch television channels as intolerably energetic activity for a Sunday, the experience was quite debilitating.

The afternoon began at 4 p.m. in the seated comfort of the PWA Zaal, the principal concert hall of the Centre, with a classic set from Oscar Peterson, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Terry Clarke (a fine drummer), full of swing and satisfaction but, of course, empty of sur­prise.

Then up to the roof to hear the superb rhythm section of Cedar Walton, Buster Williams and Billy Higgins backing the fiery flugelhorns of Red Rodney and Ira Sullivan. After two energy-charged numbers it was down to the ground floor to catch the eloquent harmonica of Brazil’s Mauricio Einhorn, guesting with the Brazilian backing band of singer Erica Norimar. Einhorn, a Thielemans disciple and a prolific composer is not only a resourceful improviser, much given to incongruous quotes, but is also the only harmonica player I’ve encountered who plays the instrument upside down. (The harmonica, that is.)

Then, passing Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis on projection video, it was up to the Sweelinck Zaal to hear Danny Richmond’s Mingus music with some useful trumpet from Jack Walrath and good, attacking piano from Bob Neloms. This was just a brief stay because I had to catch Mike Zwerin in the Faya Lobbi Zaal and then get to the Toneelzaal before Albert Mangelsdorff’s solo recital ended.

Zwerin was playing duels – rather than duets – with his tenor player, Jean Cohen, while bassist Francois Mechal was producing that over-amplified combination of finger squeaks and distortion that passes for bass playing these days.

Mangelsdorff was quite superb. He has a beautifully legitimate “Teagarden” tone, but a most adventurous approach, using overtones and vocal sounds as orchestral punctuations for his improvised lines. A deeply dedicated musician, he made lucid and gracious announcements and showed a prodigious command of the horn. It was dismaying to see just a handful of devotees in the audience.

But somewhere a voice was calling. It should have been Sarah Vaughan’s, but when I got to the PWA Zaal 15 minutes late, she still hadn’t started. So, pausing only to grab a hamburger and a bottle of chilled blanc de blanc, it was off to the Bon Bini Zaal to catch Frank Foster. Foster played some good astringent tenor and seemed to enjoy the backing of the Rob Agerbeek Trio – although I couldn’t see the expression on his face because my view was blocked by a rather massive lady whose hips could have done duty as a road block. Once again I was frustrated by an over-amplified bass.

Then a dash for the lift and up to the roof for Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin. There was a cool evening breeze blowing in from the North Sea and fluttering the canvas of the rooftop marquee as I arrived. Inside, Toshiko was doing her best to make her piano solo heard above the sound of plastic glasses being crushed underfoot and rolling drink cans and bottles. Tabackin joined her in a beautiful flute performance of the pastoral Autumn Scene, but I’m Old Fashioned, on tenor, was marred by the highly unsympathetic drumming of John Engels, who seemed bent on simulating a sporadic artillery barrage.

In the Carrousel Richie Cole and his demolition squad were destroying Holiday For Strings. It was a musical abomination, but the audience loved it, especially for the subtle dynamic variation – loud to very loud

In the Faya Lobbi Zaal 1 caught the Buck Hill group with Wilbur Little (b), Reuben Brown (p) and Billy Hart (d) playing a most excellent My Funny Valentine and then, on my way down to the Carrousel Zaal on the lower ground floor I caught sight of Sarah Vaughan on the monitor television screen competing with herself on a videotape of some earlier festival emanating from a bank of television receivers. In the Carrousel Richie Cole and his demolition squad were destroying Holiday For Strings. It was a musical abomination, but the audience loved it, especially for the subtle dynamic variation – loud to very loud.

I needed a beer after that – though my stomach clearly didn’t – but on the whole the digestive system was holding up marginally better than my pedal extremities.

I started to head for the Bob Bini Zaal for Clark Terry, but then I saw that it was only 9.20 p.m. and he wasn’t due to appear until 9 a.m. (That’s the sort of idiot chronometry that operates at the festival).

I eventually heard Terry, with guest Joe Newman adding some extra lustre to the set, and then I looked into the Sweelinck Zaal to hear Woody Shaw – only to find myself watching that most accomplished Swedish group Salamander.

Next, in the well-earned comfort of the PWA Zaal I enjoyed the really magnificent AVRO Television Big Band conducted by Tony Nolte. This outfit featured some out­standing musicians – including Ack van Rooyen and Derek Watkins on trumpets, Eric van Lier on trombone, Ferdinand Povel on alto, Bob Franken on keyboards and Eef Albers on guitar.

They played some inspired charts – Rob McConnell’s arrangement of Just Friends, Peter Herbolzheimer’s version of Giant Steps and Jerry van Rooyen’s treatment of Chick Corea’s La Fiesta – and then, after a brief spell by the Shirley Horn Trio – they accompanied Mel Tormé with great verve and vitality. Tormé was in good voice for Riding High, Watch What Happens and Send In The Clowns.

At 11.45 p.m. I adjourned briefly for my second set of dinner – four sate sticks with special guest, Frankfurter – and while eating this in the Carrousel Zaal I listened to Richie Cole beating Peg O’ My Heart into submission.

I had a fleeting whim to finish the day by going to see Bob Crosby – but tiredness and hunger overcame me and I queued for another sausage. This Sunday ended not with a whim but a banger.

Major highlights of the two previous days were provided by the Herbie Hancock Quartet (Wynton Marsalis, at 19, is clearly a major trumpet voice already and destined for great things), the Heath Brothers (a superbly polished and professional group), Dizzy Gillespie playing better in a set with James Moody and Milt Jackson, than he has for many a year, the always dependable Concord tribe (McKenna and Vaché out­standing) and Ernestine Anderson, splendidly backed by the Monty Alexander outfit. Alexander incidentally delivered a virtuoso performance of Sweet Georgia Brown with superb support from guitarist Ernest Ranglin and bassist Jerry Wiggins.