Sitting between the two pop-culture powerhouse cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, Monterey might not stand out as a pioneer town for anything except gorgeous beaches and laid-back living. But in truth, this is a town of firsts: it has California’s first state historic monument, it was where the Golden State’s first newspaper was printed, and it’s also home to California’s first state theater. For music fans and appreciators, Monterey is a place for iconic firsts for pop, rock and jazz culture: it’s the host of the oldest, and probably best-known, jazz festival in America, and became the unofficial Ground Zero of the ‘Summer of Love’ with the legendary Monterey Pop Festival of 1967. Today there are many opportunities for visitors to get an earful of music that throws back to Monterey’s glory days and showcases its vibrant present.
A Rich Music History
Monterey might be most famous for hosting one of America’s first rock music festivals, which paved the way for Woodstock two years later. Dreamt up as a means to promote rock ‘n’ roll as an art form like jazz was perceived to be, Monterey Pop took place over three days in June at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. The festival featured breakthrough performances by Jimi Hendrix, who set his guitar alight on stage, Janis Joplin, and Otis Redding, six months before he would die in a plane crash. The organizers hoped to spread a message of peace and love while offering up an eclectic line-up that not only represented different genres, but welcomed artists from around the world, including sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar from India and saxophonist Hugh Masekela from South Africa. In the end, the idea was to break boundaries and show the universality in music, and this epic event lives on in history as one of the great musical moments and the springboard for future festival culture.
About ten years before the Summer of Love, in 1958, the Monterey Jazz Festival kicked off at the fairgrounds as well with a line-up of some of the genre’s greats, including Billie Holiday in one of her last live performances before she died, as well as Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. The inaugural festival showcased various genres of jazz, from traditional, to big band, to modern jazz. Over the years it has introduced various programs to support up-and-coming artists and the music itself has evolved, with the line-up going on to include an eclectic mix of blues, pop and R ‘n’ B performances. Like the Monterey Pop Festival was, the jazz festival is a non-profit with proceeds going towards scholarships and funding for musical programs, and each year, an artist is commissioned to compose a new piece especially for the event.
Monterey Music Today
The town’s abundant and colorful music culture still lives on in the present, and as you walk down the streets you’re likely to run into a reminder that this is the home of jazz and blues and music of the counterculture. Along with the Monterey Jazz Festival, there are several other popular annual events that draw music lovers from far and near, like the Jazz Bash by the Bay and the California Roots Music and Arts Festival, and there are little venues all over the city that regularly host musicians of all calibers.
Within walking distance from the HI Monterey hostel you can get a live jazz and blues fix at Cibo, which features performances six nights of the week and is known to host secret surprise shows by big acts in town for the Monterey Jazz Festival. Or you could hit up Sly McFlys, another place to enjoy the stylings of local blues and jazz artists.
It’s not all old school though, as there’s also a burgeoning indie scene. These days younger local bands are building a following, establishing a sound and often having to find alternative venues, like Great American Burger, since many of their band member are under 21. And if you’re up for big name acts and contemporary performances, the Golden State Theater is where you’ll get the chance to hear a little bit of everything, from folk and country to good old fashioned rock n’ roll.
So, if you’re wondering if this little oceanside haven is still worth a visit outside of festival season, the answer is an unequivocal yes. As sure as the waves come crashing on the beach and the sun shines almost all year round, there will be good music to be found in Monterey.