Newport Jazz Festival: 60 Years Young
Posted 7/29/2014

The Newport Jazz Festival is the granddaddy of all jazz fests. The festival celebrates its 60th anniversary on Aug. 1–3, a remarkable milestone for an American institution that has changed the way people the world over listen to jazz, as well as how they enjoy the summer. Yet George Wein, the founder and producer of the fest that made him famous, recently said, “I’m not interested in the past.”

Seated at the dinner table in his art-filled, New York City apartment, the chairman of the Newport Festivals Foundation Inc. was on a roll: “You can talk about Miles Davis in 1955, Duke Ellington in 1956, Louis Armstrong in 1970. That’s wonderful. But I’m 88 years old and I want to know: Can we contribute something to what’s going to happen in the future? Can Newport have meaning similar to what it had back in the ’50s? It can only do that if we provide the stage for younger musicians to be heard. I’m very concerned.”

Wein studied papers spread out in front of him, on which he had drawn a grid showing Newport 2014’s three stages and running times. Having added Friday performances from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Fort Adams State Park—the promontory jutting into Narragansett Bay that’s been the fest’s home since 1981—the fest will present 45 performances. Wein’s grid had one slot empty.

“I had two openings left,” he said, “but I just confirmed this group everybody’s talking about, Snarky Puppy. I watched their clip on YouTube. My concept is to find emerging artists who have creativity but can also be commercial, reaching people while playing good music. I’m going to the Apollo Theater tonight to hear a singer who … might have star quality. We’ll see.”

Planning his multi-day event is clearly a joy to Wein, who claimed he didn’t invent the jazz festival, but just tweaked the idea. “Nothing is original,” he said. “In France they had a wonderful festival in 1949 with Sidney Bechet. Charlie Parker was there. But that was a one-night thing. We were the first annual jazz festival. We didn’t know we were doing something so different when we did it in 1954.”

But the yearly gathering Wein and his small, handpicked staff started back then at the behest of socialite Elaine Lorillard and her husband, Louis, has proved to be very different—a font of original ideas about music presentation. Born of Mrs. Lorillard’s dissatisfaction with the dullness of summer in the Rhode Island port where many wealthy New Englanders had summer homes, the event initially was billed as the “First Annual American Jazz Festival.” Held for two nights on the lawn of the Newport Tennis Casino, it attracted 11,000 people to hear (in Wein’s favorite phrase) “jazz from J to Z.” What’s now known worldwide as the Newport Jazz Festival was inspired by the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Hills, where the Boston Symphony resided during summer’s hot months.

Artists who played the inaugural fest included Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet with Horace Silver subbing on piano (because John Lewis was accompanying Ella Fitzgerald), the Lee Konitz Quartet with Lennie Tristano, Eddie Condon, Gerry Mulligan’s quartet and a jam session finale where the bandleaders plus Wild Bill Davison, Stan Kenton, Jo Jones, Pee Wee Russell, Milt Hinton and Bobby Hackett blew on “I Got Rhythm.” On the fest’s second night, Billie Holiday was reunited with Lester Young. A panel discussion on “The Place of Jazz in American Culture” featured John Hammond, Marshall Stearns and Henry Cowell. A front- page story in The New York Times bore the headline “Newport Rocked by Jazz Festival.”

By bringing stars from across the spectrum of jazz to the homogeneous Rhode Island community, Wein challenged genre categorizations, discriminatory racial policies and class distinctions. His was the first outdoor fest to institute a “rain or shine” policy, keeping the show going even when storms swept in. To accommodate the press, a photographer’s pit was cordoned off in front of the stage. Outdoor musical amplification was nascent in 1954; the fest helped pioneer it.

In its second year, the fest moved to Freebody Park and featured swing soloists, big bands (Woody Herman’s and Count Basie’s), East Coast modernists and some vocalists, such as Dinah Washington. Wein sat in on piano behind Clifford Brown and Max Roach. Miles Davis made his comeback, playing “’Round Midnight.” Thanks to radio personality Willis Conover, the Voice of America broadcast the entire program overseas.

The 1955 fest was the model for the next 16 fests. The 1958 edition was chronicled in the first feature-length jazz performance documentary, Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Highlights from this stretch of years are numerous: Ellington re-etablished his orchestra’s vibrancy; Mahalia Jackson sang for the first time to a secular audience; Louis Armstrong celebrated his 70th birthday; Benny Goodman, Cannonball Adderley, Ray Charles, Thelonious Monk, Judy Garland, Roland Kirk, Nina Simone, Archie Shepp and John Coltrane all made acclaimed appearances.

The festival became one of the most noteworthy events in all of jazz, drawing widespread media attention. Wein commissioned new music from the artists he booked. Recording deals were struck, and classic LPs released by Columbia Records, then Verve. Youth bands were organized to play the fest, giving priceless experience to the headliners of tomorrow.

There were occasional problems. Some critics complained that the fest had become overly commercial or programmed by rote (but audiences didn’t seem to mind). In 1960 a disgruntled Charles Mingus produced a rebel festival, helped by journalist Nat Hentoff and the freshly divorced Elaine Lorillard; Wein worked behind the scenes to make it happen.

Swarms of raucous youth overwhelmed Newport’s conservative townsfolk in 1960 and especially 1971, when Wein’s booking of rock bands and the era’s hedonism resulted in a mob tearing down fences. That led to the fest’s relocation for nine years as the Newport Jazz Festival–New York and the enlistment of financial backing from corporate sponsors, including Schlitz, Kool and JVC. (Sponsorship is still part of the mix. The 2014 edition is presented by Natixis Global Asset Management.)

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Herbie Hancock and his band performing at the 2010 Newport Jazz Festival (Photo: Douglas Mason)

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