History hums along in Monterey, California, without really trying. It comes from the city’s legacy as the first capital of California, with distinctive architecture to call its own and many historic landmarks and California-centric “firsts.” Visitors looking for sights and sites beyond the world-famous aquarium can savor the relative antiquity of the state’s first Congress house, Colton Hall, where they “built a state from the ground up”; the state’s first theater; and the 1827-vintage Custom House, California Historical Landmark No. 1.
There is something almost pilgrimage-like about popping up to Monterey, a doable 4.5-hour drive from Santa Barbara. The history angle can be a special enticement for us, blessed and cursed as we are by relative youth, state-wise. Any time is the right time to go, but one ripe excuse is coming up: Monterey’s official History Fest weekend, October 13-14.
This real estate is also the historic home of the Monterey Jazz Festival, which celebrated its 61st edition all over the Monterey County Fairgrounds a few weeks back — making it the oldest continuously running jazz festival in the known world. Santa Barbara’s own jazz legend, saxist Charles Lloyd, made a Sunday-afternoon appearance with his party band, the Marvels, on the very stage where, in 1966, he recorded the ultimately million-selling album Forest Flower, which made him a star in both jazz and rock circles.
Along with the festival’s abiding respect for jazz’s past — including tributes this year to late greats pianist Geri Allen, bassist Ray Brown, and tenor saxist Michael Brecker — it also keeps its finger on contemporary pulses. A “Year of the Woman” theme translated into roughly half its 2018 program going to women artists, including Tia Fuller, Ingrid Jensen, Mary Halvorson, Jane Ira Bloom, and two vocalists who will have played Santa Barbara this season — Norah Jones and Cécile McLorin Salvant.
Nearby is the Sardine Factory, a kitschy-swanky eatery just above Cannery Row. John Steinbeck made Cannery Row immortal with his novel (and its sequel, Sweet Thursday, which entered jazz annals via Duke Ellington’s “Suite Thursday,” performed at the festival several years ago). By now, Cannery Row is a slick and fairly soulless tourist magnet. When in the area, don’t miss the simple wooden structure that is Doc Ricketts’s Lab, aka Pacific Biological Laboratory, tucked into the touristy zone with a welcome, humble ambience. Here, area intellectuals such as Ed Ricketts, Joseph Campbell, Steinbeck, Henry Miller, and others convened, by the Bay.
Ironically, whereas the once-bustling sardine processing zone of Cannery Row overfished itself into obsolescence by the late ’40s, the Monterey Bay Aquarium — nestled in the former Hovden Cannery — preaches the important gospel of sustainable seafood in many of its exhibits. For some of us, a visit to Monterey isn’t complete without stopping for the hypnosis therapy of watching the circular glass tank where anchovies swim doggedly, as if in some silvery, fishy facsimile of a Berkeley swim sequence, into history-blind perpetuity.