During a recent visit to the Plaza Theater, Palm Springs International Jazz Festival founder Michael Seligman started clapping and was impressed by the reverberation of the walls.
This is the perfect jazz theater, he thought.
On May 15, the venue will host the Palm Springs International Jazz Festival with performances from the biggest names in the genre, including Christian McBride and Inside Straight, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Bill Charlap, Matthew Whitaker and the Lance Conrad Quartet.
Jazz is considered a dying genre of music and accounted for 1% of music sales in 2014. But Seligman told The Desert Sun he thinks it’s worth keeping alive and has called “the music of America”.
Seligman is partnering with the Oasis Music Festival hosted by Palm Springs Life to present the event. Publisher Frank Jones approached him to present a jazz day as part of the festival.
The Oasis Music Festival aims to help local music venues and businesses in Palm Springs recoup financial losses from the pandemic, and a portion of the proceeds will go towards restoring the Plaza Theater.
“(Jones) helped us through the pandemic, which was very nice of him,” Seligman said. “We sat down with him and told him that one of the things we insisted on was maintaining our own identity as the Palm Springs International Jazz Festival.”
The Palm Springs International Jazz Festival isn’t the only large-scale event Seligman has produced. He spent 38 years as a producer for the Oscars, as well as the presidential galas and inaugurations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and Bill Clinton.
The 86-year-old lights up when he talks about his love of jazz. At 16, he frequented the jazz club in Boston called Storyville. “They would fire me because I was underage,” Seligman told the Desert Sun in 2019.
The festival was scheduled for last January but was canceled due to a spike in COVID-19 cases during the omicron variant push, which saw them lose Afro-Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and former keyboardist of Miles DavisJohn Beasley.
“A lot of jazz stars are (touring) in Europe right now,” Seligman said.
The 2019 inaugural event at the Annenberg Theater featured performances by Sandoval, Beasley, singers Stacey Kent, Tierney Sutton and Rene Marie.
The festival features some of the biggest names in jazz
The 2022 Palm Springs International Jazz Festival once again features some of the biggest names in jazz, as well as local guitarist Chris Conrad, who will perform with three of his classmates from the University of California’s Thornton School of Music from South.
Known for sharing the stage with Sting, The Roots and Paul McCartney, McBride has won eight Grammy Awards. He is also the host of the radio shows “The Lowdown: Conversations With Christian” on SiriusXM Satellite Radio and “Jazz Night In America” on National Public Radio.
At 21, Whitaker has already performed at Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center and the Apollo Theater. The pianist was born blind and is the subject of the 2015 documentary short ‘Thrive’, which was filmed when he was 12.
“When (Whitaker) plays the piano, the visual cortex in his brain lights up like a sighted person would, and no one can explain it,” Seligman said. “He loves jazz and he’s great.”
Bridgewater, who performs jazz standards and classics, has won three Grammy Awards and is a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, and Charlap has provided his piano skills to artists such as Phil Woods and Wynton Marsalis, as well as the legends Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand. .
Palm Springs has a rich jazz history
Palm Springs has a long history with the genre, from the big band era in the 40s and 50s to Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack making Palm Springs their playground in the 50s and 60s.
But you can’t talk about jazz in Palm Springs without talking about the Chi Chi Club. The famous downtown location was at 217 N. Palm Canyon Drive from the 1940s to the 1960s.
The building previously housed a bar, Freeman’s Desert Grill, opened by local resident Jack Freeman in 1936. But his business partner, architect Irwin Schuman, renamed it Chi Chi two years later, according to a Desert Sun column by Nicolette Wenzell of the Palm Springs Historical Society.
Schuman then expanded the venue, transforming it from a small bar into an extravagant nightclub.
In October 1948, the Chi Chi inaugurated a new theater that could seat 750 people, the Starlite Room. (By comparison, the Annenberg Theater has 430 seats.) Acclaimed actor and bandleader Desi Arnaz and his 17-piece orchestra made their debut. A new dining room, The Blue Room, added space for an additional 250 people.
Bill Alexander, a professional drummer, was chosen to be the musical director of Chi Chi’s house band. He performed as announcer and conductor. His five- to nine-piece band has opened for artists ranging from jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to comics Milton Berle and Red Skelton.
Other performers included Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughn and Palm Springs resident Nat King Cole, according to Tracy Conrad, who is also president of the Palm Springs Historical Society.
Alexander kept many secrets about famous Palm Springs residents who hung out at the club, according to his 2006 obituary in The Desert Sun. Greg Purdy, the former director of media relations for The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, a dance and music revue carried out at the nearby Plaza Theater, called him “a repository of all the filth that’s happened in this town”.
Hoping to capitalize on the city’s appetite for jazz, promoter Gene Norman planned to hold a three-day jazz festival in Palm Springs in 1958. The first day would feature Dixieland, or traditional jazz, with a performance by ‘Armstrong; the second day would be big band and the last day would be improvisational jazz, according to Conrad.
Mayor Frank Bogert agreed with the festival, but not Police Chief Gus Kettmann.
Norman, who had hosted several jazz festivals in California before, said the Palm Springs festival was aimed at an older audience over 30.
The jazz festival never took place. Desert Sun’s editorial board even backed the decision to deny the permit, saying the festival would be “lost” to younger visitors.
A few years later, the nightclub scene began to fade, and Schulman sold the Chi Chi in 1961, according to Conrad. The club will go through several new owners who will transform the space for a wide range of uses, from a cabaret that showed adult films to a wax museum and spaghetti restaurant.
In 1984 it was demolished for the expansion of the Desert Fashion Plaza.
Seligman said he hopes to make the Palm Springs International Jazz Festival “bigger and better” and thinks it can draw jazz fans to Los Angeles and San Diego.
“The biggest jazz festivals are on the West Coast,” Seligman said. “The Monterey Jazz Festival is big. The Newport Jazz Festival started out as a one-day thing and if you look at this year’s lineup, they have Norah Jones. It’s amazing.”
If you are going to
What: Palm Springs International Jazz Festival
When: May 15
Or: Plaza Theater, 128 S. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs
How much: VIPs cost between $350 and $500 and individual shows are priced individually
More information: oasismusicfestival.com/palm-springs-international-jazz-festival-2022
Previous reports by Bruce Fessier have been used in this report.
Brian Blueskye covers arts and entertainment for the Desert Sun. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @bblueskye.