No Umbrage in Umbria

The Umbria Jazz festival, in Perugia, celebrated its 30th anniversary in July. In 1987, Umbria invited me to show a film I had made about Charlie Parker, and during my brief visit I attended two unforgettable performances: Gil Evans leading his orchestra in a 13th-century church that had lost its roof to an earthquake; and a double bill by Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz in a football stadium with listeners sitting and occasionally dancing on the field. All three titans would be gone within four years, so those evenings linger with a particular keenness to which the settings contributed greatly. Returning for the first time this summer, I found the venues changed, but not the gilded splendor of Perugia, the exquisite ancient city in the heart of Italy’s Umbria region, two hours north of Rome.

Unhappily, I could attend only the first four of its 10 days, meaning I got to see, among others, Keith Jarrett, Bill Charlap, Tony Bennett, Caetano Veloso, Elvin Jones, Gilberto Gil and Maria Bethania, Ornette Coleman and Dave Douglas, and missed, among others, Lee Konitz and Phil Woods, Sonny Rollins, James Brown, João Gilberto, Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea, Van Morrison and Roy Hargrove. If some of these artists seem tangential to jazz, as defined by strict constructionists, credit or blame Carlo Pagnotta, the festival’s cofounder and visionary artistic director whose musical appetite is knowingly inclusionary and international. He also presented groups from New Orleans, of which the most appealing was Chucky C & Clearly Blue; Chucky is singer, saxophonist and flutist Charles Elam III, and his band is an entertaining amalgam of jazz, blues and soul. Umbria’s broad mix contributes to the general festiveness and welcome diversity of the audience.

The festival’s present format, which combines ticketed events and free public-square concerts, began in 1982. Before that, everything was free, and ill-behaved crowds all but trampled the multilevel hillside town, which, having survived since the Renaissance, could probably have withstood anything short of a mob armed with self-righteousness. Even now, the tremendous late-night crowds on the Corso Vanucci look intimidating from a distance, but they are peaceable and composed, and there is something akin to shared intoxication when you exit an 18th-century concert hall at 1 a.m. into a brightly lighted plaza of churches and arches-like a medieval theme park. By day, you can acquire an even more profound frisson of historical reverberations by walking down to Piazza Fortebraccio, where the magnificent arch was built by the Etruscans 300 years before Christ, and up to the Porto Sole, where Dante liked to look out at the surrounding hills, no less divine today.

Why else hop the ocean to see musicians whom, for the most part, you can see in your own backyard, than for the transforming powers of fresh and, one would hope, inspiring scenery? Pagnotta’s triumph is to bring all of Perugia into play. In this he was helped by another architectural wonder, albeit one only two decades old. Perugia is on a hill dominated by a huge fortress erected by Pope Paul III, in 1540, to keep the citizens under his dominion. To get from the base of the fortress, where the Arena Santa Giuliana presents the biggest attractions, to the top, where the town’s main thoroughfare and other performing sites are located, once required an arduous hike. But now a series of four moderately steep escalators climbs directly through the Pope’s erstwhile alternate court, and the trip takes all of four minutes.

Luminous open-air events aside, the most glorious venues are two jewel-box theaters, Teatro Morlacchi and Teatro Pavone, erected in an era (the former dates from 1781), when builders knew that sound goes up and not out; each has a shallow orchestra and five splendid balconies, and almost every inch is covered with frescos, sculptures, inlays, cameos, medallions and so forth.

And the music?

Anything I expect to remember 15 years from now?

Well, I hope to forget Jarrett’s temper tantrum over still photography (apparently it’s OK to shoot him with a 16 mm. camera because it has “continuous flow”). But I imagine I’ll recall Coleman capping a vital, soaring set with an irradiant “Lonely Woman” under a black sky with a full gleaming-orange moon; Elvin, at Pavone, playing one of the most melodic sets I’ve ever heard from him, including back-to-back Armstrong homages, “(What a) Wonderful World” and the obscure “Hello Brother”; and Bennett swinging to beat the band, now a quartet with pianist John Oddo, ending one number after another with operatic high notes and building to the Clayton Cameron drum solo that always brings the house down. I may even remember the expansive set by Bill Charlap and Peter Washington (Kenny Washington missed his plane), and drummer Clarence Penn pressing Douglas’ sparkling quintet (if only Uri Caine would put the Fender Rhodes back in mothballs).

On top of all that, I discovered Barbaresco-readily available there, very expensive here-a mirthfully sanguine red wine that made even the long flight home seem like a breeze.