'It doesn't get better than this'

This year's Frank Morgan Taos Jazz Festival offers a breathtaking lineup starting with Grace Kelly, George Cables and more

By Dena Miller
Posted 11/21/19

This weekend, the Taos Jazz Bebop Society is inviting jazz fans from near and far to its fifth annual Frank Morgan Taos Jazz Festival, featuring some of the biggest names in the field.

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'It doesn't get better than this'

This year's Frank Morgan Taos Jazz Festival offers a breathtaking lineup starting with Grace Kelly, George Cables and more


The 2019 annual report from researchers at Ethnologue cataloged 7,111 distinct living languages and, as staggering as that number is, it doesn't include in its count the one language that's both universally recognized and loved. That language, of course, is music. And, like the spoken word, music abounds with its own idioms, accents and roots.

Lovers of jazz, for example, have no need for a dictionary or translator to appreciate its exhilarating nuances: soulful, joyous, mournful, uplifting, energizing, soothing and filling the voids which exist in emotions that defy words. Its improvisational style captures flight in the soul because life, after all, is one big improvisation.

This weekend, the Taos Jazz Bebop Society is inviting jazz fans from near and far to its fifth annual Frank Morgan Taos Jazz Festival, featuring some of the biggest names in the field and over multiple days and venues in town. The society also hopes to attract some new students to the library of its very American, multicultural idioms.

"It doesn't get any better than this," said Judy Katzman, president of the society's nonprofit board. "Saxophone star Grace Kelly, who became Frank Morgan's protégée at the age of 13, will return to headline the festival," adding that Kelly, who had returned to the previous four festivals in his honor, has also added a second show to Saturday's lineup.

Anniversary quartet

Before Kelly performs here, there are a couple of can't-miss shows to move you into the weekend, beginning Thursday (Nov. 21), 7 p.m., at the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. That's when the George Cables 25th Anniversary Quartet plus a special guest takes the stage.

Cables, also a composer, is one of the most in-demand pianists whose collaborations span many genres but who is especially recognized for his "solos [which] reveal a deep sense of groove and pacing and a mind at work," according to NPR. The rest of his quartet is equally stellar. Doug Lawrence has worked with everyone from Benny Goodman, Ray Charles and Tony Bennett to Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Lady Gaga, and is currently lead tenor saxophonist in the Count Basie Orchestra.

World-class bassist John Webber has performed with Johnny Griffin, Jimmy Cobb, Diana Krall, Annie Ross and Horace Silver, among many others, and Louis Hayes, the impeccably swinging drummer, has earned legendary status though his multiyear associations with some of the world's most influential jazz groups, noted Katzman.

"With all of this talent we'll still make tonight even more memorable when Paul Gonzales and his trumpet will join the others onstage, making it a really special evening," said Katzman.

There's yet another special aspect to this evening's concert. "We're offering free admission to Taos students because we want to give more young people the opportunity to experience jazz. This includes University of New Mexico students with their college IDs." Tickets for general admission are $25, or $20 for Taos Jazz Bebop Society members.

'Small Plates'

On Friday (Nov. 22) the music moves to the Arthur Bell Auditorium of the Harwood Museum of Art,123 Ledoux Street, when the Julian Pollack Trio takes the spotlight at 7 p.m.

Pollack, whose latest album, "Small Plates," was released this year, has quickly garnered acclaim for his wide array of jazz idioms - fusing rock, funk and world music in "contemporary production styles with a nod to the jazz tradition and the spontaneity of live music and improvisation," according to his website. Equally regarded as a composer and arranger, the young musician promises you an electrifying evening performance. Tickets for this event are $25, or $20 for Harwood and Taos Jazz Bebop Society members.

Fiery Grace

And, then, there is the powerhouse Grace Kelly, filling your Saturday afternoon and evening (Nov. 23) with her gloriously intuitive mastery of the saxophone, a talent that has already catapulted her far, but for which there appears to be no bounds. Unassailable as a prodigy, she recorded her first CD at the age of 12 and soloed with the Boston Pops Orchestra -- performing a piece she both composed and orchestrated -- at the age of 14. This young musician is a de facto force of nature in the universe of jazz, the likes of which is rarely encountered.

Kelly was mentored by Frank Morgan until his death in 2007. Subsequently, Phil Woods welcomed Kelly onto the world's greatest stages. On Saturday she will step onto the Arthur Bell Auditorium stage for the 2 p.m. performance of "Jazz Tribute to Frank Morgan," where she will also be joined by her quartet and Julian Pollack. Availability of tickets is limited so visit for more information.

Saturday, Kelly invites you to join her at 7:30 p.m., when her "Joy Party" kicks off at Taos Mesa Brewing's Mothership, 20 ABC Mesa Road, off U.S. 64 west. Pollack will once again accompany her in this brash and high-spirited electro-jazz pop show but this time with his piano swapped out for electronic keyboards. Tickets are $25 in advance at, or $30 at the door.

Though her time with Frank Morgan was short-lived, Kelly is inextricably linked to the legendary musician and to the story of the festival's success. But, first, a bit about Morgan himself.

"Probably being named the protégé of Charlie Parker is what did him in," said Eric Gladstone, a founder and member of the board of Taos Jazz Bebop Society. "He was that talented and maybe couldn't handle it. He became addicted to heroin and spent 30 years in and out of San Quentin [California State Prison] for crimes he committed to support his habit."

But even the prison guards recognized something special in Morgan. He formed an ensemble called The Warden's Band, an elite selection of incarcerated musicians who performed at the penitentiary every Sunday, wearing tuxedos fabricated from prison denim, "but they had to turn them in at the end of each show. There's a book about it, which called them 'the greatest living jazz band never recorded,'" Gladstone recalled.

Connections in Taos

After Morgan's final release from prison, Gladstone got to hear him in California. "We spoke, and I told him how much I admired him as a musician. Imagine my surprise when 10 years later he had moved to Taos and I ran into him again."

Morgan spent several years here, until health issues forced him to move, but there was a magic window which allowed him to hear Grace Kelly. "He said he'd waited his whole life to hear her, which he did in New York City," Gladstone said. "He never had the chance to bring Grace to Taos with him before he died, which he wanted, but she's forever impacted by her brief time mentoring with him and travels here every year for our festival."

Kelly is also a featured performer in the 2014 feature film "Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story," which was co-produced by author Michael Connelly (of the "Bosch" mysteries). In it, she performs "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in a tribute concert held at San Quentin.

These are unsurprising acts of love in the intimate, connected community of jazz musicians, both Gladstone and Katzman noted. "For better or for worse, the jazz community is one of passion," Katzman said. "And this festival survives and thrives because of that passion."

Discover for yourself the language of this amazing music and, maybe you, too, will become a lifelong fan.

For more information about tickets to these three special days of music, visit or call (575) 758-3147.


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