With the Monterey Jazz Festival around the corner, one of its many stars, Charlie Hunter, opens up about the community fostered by music
At his home on the East Coast, Charlie Hunter is just another suburban dad, indistinguishable from any other chauffeur driving his kids to soccer practice. But on stage, Hunter is famous for his agility on seven- and eight-string guitars. His music intersects with jazz, funk, blues, and many other genres, making his performances both eclectic and treasured.
But perhaps more moving than the music itself, is the amount of thought behind it. For Hunter, music exists in a realm above the political fray and beyond divisiveness, its sole purpose being to create a common ground for people. “[Music] is supposed to start a non-verbal dialogue among everyone,” he says. “[It] is supposed to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
The 46-year-old guitarist started to develop this ideology while growing up in Berkeley, Calif. “I think there are a lot of us that grew up in a weird communal way. If you ask any of the Berkeley musicians or East Bay musicians, many grew up in some very unique situations,” says Hunter. “I grew up on a school bus on a commune—but Berkeley in the 1970s is an entirely different place than it is today. It completely influences your worldview.”
That sense of community and unity is at the heart of the Monterey Jazz Festival, which takes place Sept. 20-22 at the historic Monterey County Fairgrounds. The annual event has featured every jazz legend, from Charlie Byrd to Billie Holiday, in its 56-year history, and will continue that tradition this year with performances by more than 500 artists, including Hunter—a five-year MJF veteran—Bobby McFerrin (“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”), Diana Krall (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”) and George Benson (“This Masquerade”).
In addition to performances by some of the genre’s most influential players, the MJF also shines the spotlight on emerging stars, like The California Honeydrops, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and Santa Cruz’s own 7 Come 11.
On Saturday, Sept. 21, Hunter will share the stage with longtime friend and drummer Scott Amendola. And with more than 30 recordings to Hunter’s name, including his most recent release with Amendola, 2012’s Not Getting Behind is the New Getting Ahead, and a new album on the way, the pair will have a mountain of material to choose from for the set.
“The point of what I do is to give people a break from the struggle—that’s my job, ultimately,” Hunter says. “It doesn’t mean I’m putting on a clown suit. We commune with the audience as honest as we can and tangentially be part of their greater community. That is the most important part of what we do.”
Tim Jackson, MJF artistic director and cofounder of the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, knows how important and challenging bringing together such a diverse community can be. From his office in Monterey, Jackson explains the bigger picture.
“It’s interesting when you consider that the Monterey Jazz Festival has a long chronological timeline where you can study how the music and the audience has changed and evolved over the years,” says Jackson, who adds that evolution is the nature of jazz. While some die-hard fans might only want to hear straight-ahead jazz, younger audience members often appreciate jazz that has a touch of funk, reggae or even hip-hop and rap mixed in. “When you have music that deals with emotion, spirit and collaboration,” says Jackson, “it’s important to fit as many acts under the jazz umbrella as possible.”
Appealing to listeners of all ages is a determining factor in the MJF lineup, which now features everyone from the Wayne Shorter Quartet to Santa Cruz’s North Pacific String Band.
“We pride ourselves on staying true to being a jazz festival,” says Jackson. “We embrace and look forward to finding acts that have elements of jazz and that might lie just outside the jazz realm so we can appeal to the widest possible jazz audience.”
The Monterey Jazz Festival takes place Sept. 20-22 at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, 2000 Fairground Road, Monterey. For tickets, event schedule, and more information, visit montereyjazzfestival.org.
Photos: Bobby McFerrin by Carol Friedman. Diana Krall by Mark Seliger