Jazz festival picnic

Simple foods fit the mood. Take along chicken sandwiches with BBQ sauce, garlic smashed potato salad, and juicy tomato salad
Matthew Jaffe

The moment McCoy Tyner came onstage at the Hollywood Bowl last summer, he made my own personal jazz history live again. I first saw Tyner more than 20 years ago, playing piano at the now-defunct Keystone Korner on a rainy night in San Francisco's North Beach. The room was small and tight, the air thick with smoke and gin. I sat just off Tyner's right shoulder ― ridiculously close when I think of it ― bearing intimate witness to his runs, which balanced delicacy with bull-like strength. For me, that night would forever deflne jazz.

As for Tyner's appearance at the Bowl, the scene could not have been more different. The most famous outdoor music venue in the world, the Bowl sits in a wooded hollow of the Hollywood Hills. A section of boxes climbs from the stage, then rows of benches rise high up the slope of the fan-shaped amphitheater. Miles of aisles. Such a scale can challenge a performer of even Tyner's physical presence and artistic power.

But Tyner and his trio fllled the Bowl with an intense set ranging from the standard St. Louis blues to an original tribute to John Coltrane, leader of the celebrated quartet that the pianist performed with in the 1960s. The Piano Masters concert also starred Tyner's fellow legends Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis, and by the end of the evening, it was clear that no room could have contained so much jazz. Better to let the music soar into the canyon and through the summer night.

Multiple Grammy Award-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves has performed at the Hollywood Bowl numerous times over her career and is involved with jazz programming here. For Reeves, a Bowl concert can be intimidating, but the difficulties it presents also inspire her as a singer.

"The biggest challenge as a performer is to make the Bowl feel like an intimate space, or rather, to let everyone ― including the people farthest away at the top of the hill ― find a way to experience you," says Reeves. "As for my experience, I am always a bundle of nerves before I hit the stage at the Bowl, and once I step out and feel the energy, I'm ignited."

Each summer across the West, jazz moves out of the clubs and into the open air ― "beneath the moon or under the sun," as Cole Porter might have put it. Along the shores of Long Beach, surrounded by Rocky Mountain peaks in Telluride, Colorado, or in the heart of Vancouver, British Columbia, jazz fans can settle in for long afternoons and evenings filled with the genius of the world's top musicians. And in addition to all that jazz, these events provide a perfect reason to put together simple, artful picnics (not as easy as it sounds).

 

To use an inartful term, be aware of the schlep factor: At most events, expect to do a fair amount of walking. Just getting to the Hollywood Bowl, for example, is part of the concert ritual. While some brave the venue's notorious stacked parking, many, even in the transit-averse metropolis of L.A., opt to take shuttle buses that converge on the Bowl from all points of the city.

Upon arrival, concertgoers fan out across the sprawling and sometimes steep grounds in search of prime picnic spots or to claim old favorites. There's a range of choices: Tables are hidden on the edge of chaparral-cloaked slopes, set beneath rustling king palms, or situated with views of Old Hollywood neighborhoods that hover above the city like latter-day Italian hill towns. Those lucky enough to have one of the Bowl's coveted boxes (complete with little flip-up tables) tend to settle in earlier. Although the jazz crowd is younger and hipper than the Bowl's symphonic audiences, the spreads in the boxes still get elaborate, sometimes with linen tablecloths, candlelight, and nary a drop of Two Buck Chuck.

Over the years such giants as Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Wynton Marsalis have all played the Hollywood Bowl. Brubeck's performance at the Piano Masters concert came almost 50 years after he was part of a lineup at a show that also featured Billie Holiday. That landmark 1955 concert was the first at the Bowl entirely devoted to jazz, but the long tradition actually dates back to 1936, when Benny Goodman played here. There were even a few experiments with jazz in the 1920s during classical concerts. One reviewer dismissed jazz as a "momentarily popular medium," but certainly decades of legendary shows at the Bowl have proven otherwise.

Reeves has never forgotten her first experience at the Bowl. "The first time I went to the Bowl was to see Miles Davis, and it was extraordinary," she recalls. "I soon dreamed of the day that I might have the chance to feel what it would be like to be on that stage ― and Tito Puente made that dream come true. It's an extraordinary feeling to be on the same stage as so many jazz greats. And doing it before such a large audience, under the stars, is simply thrilling."

The 10,000 fans at the Piano Masters concert would doubtless agree with Reeves's assessment of the Bowl experience. From the boxes to the benches high up the slope, the focus shifts from dinner to music as the concert begins. The golden hills and the Hollywood sign glow, then dissolve into the darkness. The hot day turns to a night that just gets cooler and cooler as the musicians play on.