Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Flat Attendance

By Rick Béziat

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  Recently, I unearthed a little dog-eared spiral notebook containing 20 pages of passionately scribbled observations about my evening at the Nashville Jazz Festival, Sept. 29, 1968. A college student at the time, I was presumably going to interrupt my taxing schedule of intramural volleyball reporting and write a review for the Vanderbilt Hustler.

At the time, producer George Wein was taking his Newport Jazz Festival A-team on a 20-date swing through the South, heading toward New Orleans and a final gig in Mexico City. On the Municipal Auditorium stage that night were some of the greatest creative talents on the planet: Dave Brubeck with Gerry Mulligan; Thelonious Monk; Roland Kirk; Gary Burton. These were artists of international renown, visionaries who could take a bicycle seat and, like Picasso, turn it into a bull's head. Two of them had even appeared on the cover of Time.

My notebook entry begins, "Total attendance, including balcony, is 76 people. I have counted twice." The great Monk and Brubeck--stiffed in Music City! Statistics are sketchy, but this may be some sort of local record, unmatched until 1991, when the Nashville Stars basketball team was reduced to giving away tickets in hopes of selling a few hot dogs.

Three decades later, what are we to make of such a fiasco? After all, this very same music is alive and well today. Flatted fifths and "So What" can be heard regularly at Henry's, F. Scott's, The Sutler, and Caffé Milano. WMOT broadcasts Wynton Marsalis playing the music of Thelonious Monk live from Lincoln Center. Hell, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Joshua Redman, various Marsali--even Brubeck and Gary Burton themselves--can routinely sell a thousand-plus tickets for Langford Auditorium on a rainy night in the dead of winter.

Of course, back in those days, Nashville was an entirely different place. There were some great players around, obviously. One would have been hard-pressed to find more complete musicians than Grady Martin, Reggie Young, Glen Campbell, or our national treasure, Chet. But even if these studio pros could have cared less about hearing Monk, you'd think more college students would have shown up for this thing. After all, it was the radical year of 1968. Surely the Nashville Jazz Festival was presenting some individuals who were into some pretty heavy stuff--pharmaceutically as well as musically. And wasn't this the famous '60s of song and myth?

Forget it. Around here, the '60s came in the '70s. Now, it's true that about the time Monk came to town, you could start to hear a few faint rumblings of change: Stokely Carmichael and William Sloane Coffin might appear briefly and stir things up; a crowd might be milling around outside the Belcourt debating Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits; a philosophy professor might be directing Marat/Sade at the old V.U. Theatre. And it's true that a few bold souls were signing antiwar petitions and picketing the Pancake Pantry for its dress code; that tanks actually appeared in Centennial Park in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder five months earlier; that a couple of guys might be seen sneaking into the Beta house kitchen to cook up and smoke some banana skins. But these were just "occasions," spikes in the curve. The prevailing '60s spirit of Nashville was...just more of the '50s!

It's not surprising, then, that jazz wouldn't find much of a place in such a climate. Nashville was, in short, a sleepy burg in 1968. We were hangin' around at Melfi's and at the Hippodrome, listening to "Little Green Apples" and "I'm a Girl Watcher" on WMAK. There was a church on every corner, Ernest Tubb was in his store, and all was right with the world.

And thus to our fair city came George Wein and his jazzmen, with an evening of modal fourths, "Blue Rondo La Turk," "Portsmouth Figurations," 13th chords, and a wild blind man with three horns in his mouth, screeching his head off. My $6 landed me front row, dead center. I sat with my friend Larry McNeely, Roy Acuff's 19-year-old banjo prodigy.

Both of us considered ourselves fairly hip and musically superior. Of course, Larry really was. Not long after this, he became a regular on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. As for me, hey, I knew the chords to "Wichita Lineman" and "MacArthur Park," and I had some general idea of who Dave Brubeck was--something about five beats to the measure instead of four...or something.

At 8 o'clock George Wein took the stage; one might have logically expected him to "present the evening." Standing about 12 feet in front of us, he took a long, painful look around the empty house--and there is no empty house like a 10,000-seat empty house--spoke into the microphone, and, to our utter astonishment, introduced Larry!

"Stand up! I recognize this young man from the Newport Folk Festival last summer, where he was playing these original and inventive solos behind tired-ass old Roy Acuff...who'd been playing those same old tired-ass songs in the same tired-ass way for about 150 years..."--he was insulting Roy Acuff!--"...and everybody in the world knows that that sorry-ass music of his makes an absolute mockery of legitimately calling this sorry-ass town `Music City.' "

After a few more runs in this key, George left the stage, never to return; he probably spent the rest of the evening in his station wagon studying the road map to Atlanta. Larry sat down. The house lights stayed on. A stagehand in a cardigan sweater and tie moved George's mike over a few feet, and an organ trio--a staple of the old jazz scene--came out and started vamping.

Arthur Prysock, an oily singer in the Billy Eckstine tradition, came up behind them, took the mike, moved his lips, and--nothing, no sound. His voice was completely drowned out by the organ. The ensuing tonal sludge was awful. Larry and I looked at each other. Had we spent six bucks for this?

We looked up toward the auditorium ceiling at the speakers, which were built to handle announcements and disqualifications at Dixie Flyers hockey games. On this night, we discovered, the presentation matched the ticket sales: If that little, tinny PA hadn't defeated the music, the nightmare acoustics of the cavernous auditorium would have finished the job.

Gary Burton came on next. My notebook recalls that "his vibes solos started out on the ceiling and pretty much stayed up there." All the audience heard for 20 minutes were the long, coiling lines of his electric-bass player. In this case, it was a decent experience, since Steve Swallow was--and is--among the greats.

Then out came the great Monk. Wearing a red fez and tassel, sitting like the Buddha, he stared at the keys for a long time. He reached out and tapped a hopeful octave: The piano was hopelessly out of tune. The absurdity of the situation was not lost on Monk. He shook his head and caught the eye of his sax man, Charlie Rouse; together, they laughed the deepest, most wonderfully rich, ain't-show-biz-great laugh imaginable. This was the high point of the evening.

With his inimitable punch-and-jab technique, all elbows and weird angles, Monk ran through a few perfunctory tunes and called it a night. Brubeck and Mulligan likewise did their 20-minute turn and looked like they were playing impeccably. I kept staring at Brubeck for a sign of exasperation, but he remained his proud intelligent self. Mulligan, however, seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time fooling with the mouthpiece of his baritone sax, trying to figure out which B-flat he should tune to.

Then, as a grand finale, Rahsaan Roland Kirk was led out. He wore wrap-around dark glasses, a foot-high afro with a knit cap on top, and a bright-red African dashiki. Around his neck hung a veritable Harlem sidewalk sale: bells, whistles, percussion sticks, and five woodwind instruments, including--we were told--a stritch and a mazello. Kirk was a whirlwind of nervous energy, constantly fumbling with two or three instruments, humming, bobbing, weaving, doing that circular breathing thing. His tone was harsh and vibrato-less, his solos honking and braying; his rhythm section was in the full throes of an assaultive, every-man-for-himself, avant-garde storm-trooper assault.

At this point, it occurred to all 76 members of the audience that perhaps we were hearing a 20-minute meter reading of the toxicity level of Kirk's bloodstream. Larry, who had been to the state fair earlier in the week, said, "Damn, just go on out and bring out the Tattooed Lady."

The drummer ran his hand dramatically along a string of bells and wind chimes, crashed the Chinese gong, and Kirk was led from the stage. Everyone looked around--was this it? The house lights had stayed on throughout the entire performance. Maybe George Wein saw a chance to reduce some of the overhead by getting the spotlight operator to double in concessions.

The lone stagehand began dismantling the boom mike over the piano. The guy behind us stood up, jabbed his finger into his ear a few times, slipped on his "Glaser Brothers" jacket, and asked Larry, "What time's the Alley close, buddy?" The Great Nashville Jazz Festival of 1968--no lights, no sound, no introductions, no encores, and no intermission--was over in an hour and 40 minutes.

We made for the exits with a slight grudge, having witnessed a textbook lesson in how not to put on a show. Little did we know that we'd just seen one of the oddest footnotes in Nashville music history.

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