Newport 50th Anniversary Celebration: A Preview
“ Jazz facilitated the change from art as an expression of social class to art as a "class act" that could also generate the thrills that made its riches available to all. ”
If you do attend this year's event or have attended past Newport Festivals, All About Jazz welcomes your comments at our Bulletin Board.
Now, to an overview of this year's Festival followed by a few thoughts about the historical significance of jazz festivals and Newport in particular.
Highlights Of The Fiftieth Anniversary Newport Festival
This year, the Festival appropriately emphasizes events dedicated to some of the great jazz artists and groups who appeared during the early days of Newport, and whose legacy will last forever. Also included, however, are the musicians who are an integral part of today's jazz scene. In some cases, past reminiscences and contemporary contributions merge rather seamlessly.
Among the groups evoking intense reminiscences of the early days of the Festival are updated versions of the following:
The Dave Brubeck Quartet; The John Faddis Orchestra saluting Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and others; The Count Basie Orchestra; a solo performance by Chico Hamilton; John Coltrane Remembered featuring Ravi Coltrane and McCoy Tyner; Monk's Dream; Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Company; The Ornette Coleman Quartet; The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra Saluting Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, and Louis Armstrong; The Mingus Big Band, and The Heath Brothers. Among the personnel in these groups are some of the great sidemen and soloists in the business, including Clark Terry, Lewis Nash, Phil Woods, Cedar Walton, James Moody, and Roy Hargrove. The list of "hall of famers" grows too numerous to mention all. This is truly an "all-star cast," promising a weekend of musical excitement, reminiscences, reunions, and -yes- fun!
The fun may be highlighted by the appearance of comedian Bill Cosby in the role of band leader. "Cos" is a musician of some accomplishment, and has done much to advance the cause of jazz.
A perhaps more contemporary focus can be expected to be provided by groups led by Branford Marsalis, Jamie Cullum, Lew Tabackin, Dave Douglas, and others.
A special feature of the Festival will be a "Piano Stage," featuring many of the top pianists in the business. Among my own favorites will be host Marian McPartland, Uri Caine, Mulgrew Miller, and Renee Rosnes.
It can be expected that fans, musicians, and press from around the world will be in attendance.
The Significance Of Festivals In The History Of Jazz
The well-known real estate slogan about the importance of "Location! Location! Location!" applies equally well to jazz. As we know, jazz had its origins in New Orleans and soon migrated to the Midwest and Chicago, and then around the country, to Europe, and, in time, to Asia. In the early days, its venues shifted from local events such as Mardi Gras and funerals to various theaters, with an emphasis on entertainment. In the Swing Era, ballroom dances, as well as the entertainment of World War II troops, became the chief settings for the emerging big bands. College tours also became frequent. With the advent of bebop and modern jazz, the small clubs increasingly provided arenas for the evolving small groups. Those along 52nd Street and in Harlem in New York City, for example, were hotbeds of creativity.
With Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic series in Los Angeles, the showcasing of multiple groups and performers in a single concert evolved. To allow for even larger audiences, outdoor events were established. As early as 1938, Randall's Island featured a concert with Duke Ellington and his orchestra, and, by the 1950's, the Monterrey and Newport Festivals became hallmarks of summertime jazz festivals held around the world. Through such events, many musicians who were at the forefront of jazz creativity, yet somewhat isolated in cults of the initiated, became known to a wider public, joining the ranks of the "traditionalists" like Louis Armstrong in terms of popularity and media recognition.
The value of such festivals in the evolution and sustenance of jazz as an art form is inestimable. They not only exposed a wider audience to the music and gave it a new legitimacy as a performance art; they also brought various kinds of groups from trios to large ensembles, and various jazz approaches and styles, into rich contact with one another, so that various musical melding and hybrids developed. Festivals are a primary reason why we think today of jazz as a wide-ranging interpenetrating convergence of musical forms rather than entirely discrete "schools" or styles. The Festivals, like the smaller jam sessions, allowed musicians of various backgrounds to comingle and discover common elements within the variations that came from their diverse origins. They also facilitated greater interactions between white and African American musicians, as well as among American and European influences, at a time when racial integration emerged as a social force. There is little doubt that jazz festivals have played a significant role in the integration process.
Newport In Context
The Newport Jazz Festival, the brainchild of producer George Wein, began exactly fifty years ago, in the summer of 1954, during a period of spectacular jazz productivity following upon the advent of bebop, with particular "signatures" such as "West Coast Jazz," hard bop, world music, free jazz, and other styles, concepts, and structures, generating a fervor of excitement. Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus, to name but a very few, created music that went well beyond entertainment to genuine artistic concept and execution. At Newport, such innovative musicians performed side by side with Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, and others, establishing an aura in which foot-tapping thrills and complex inventiveness in blues, swing, and modern idioms complemented rather than contradicted one another. Such a combination of entertainment and artistic profundity is in itself a great contribution of jazz to our cultural heritage. One literally must go back five centuries (!) to Shakespeare and the (open air) Globe Theater to find a genuine parallel. In the interim, artistic exhibitions and musical performances were thought of mainly as serious, even solemn events held in salons (often the living quarters of the rich and famous), museums, concert halls, and churches. Jazz facilitated the change from art as an expression of social class to art as a "class act" that could also generate the thrills that made its riches available to all. It is no accident that the sometimes strained relations between conservative Newport, symbolized by its Victorian and Gilded Age mansions overlooking the sea, and the unbridled spirit of the Festivals reflects, in some ways, this dialectic between music that appeals to listeners of diverse backgrounds and economic status, versus the self-preservation of a tarnished upper class. Fortunately, thanks in large part to George Wein's gentle ministrations, this struggle has evolved into a cooperative and mutually satisfying dialogue between the historical trusts, the townsfolk, and the Festival. This year, on August 11th, a black tie funding event, involving the Newport musicians among others, is to be held at the Breakers, the former summer estate of the Vanderbilts. Such an occasion of cooperation shows how the ties between Newport and the Festival have grown and prospered.
In this ferment of democratic process occurring in a beautiful and historical seaside setting, the Newport Festival has been a singular occurrence and a generator of enormous energy both for the musicians and the crowds that gather to hear their sounds. This is not the "politess" of clinking glasses and reserved applause of the intimate nightclub setting. Here, there is more a feeling of Seurat's famous painting of Parisians at a picnic, "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte," an atmosphere of casual relaxation combined with expressions of individual and collective energy by both performers and audience. In 1955, when Newport featured Duke Ellington's orchestra, a woman from nearby New Bedford, Massachusetts rose from her seat and began to dance. Soon, a frenzy developed that inspired Duke and the group to intense repeated solos that seemed to never end. There was concern about matters getting out of control, but they did not. For the most part, unlike some rock festivals, the crowd at Newport has been friendly and civilized.
I cannot resist the observation that, in its own way, and at its best, jazz can be a uniquely civilizing process. For one thing, it allows the performers and listeners an opportunity to experience extremes of emotion from ecstasy and erotic passion, to utmost grief and sadness, without losing control or falling apart. In this way, festivals bring together diverse people in a common bond of universal feelings. The subtly and complexity of expression of jazz also modulates, refines, elaborates, and indeed adds meaning, to our emotions, making us simultaneously observer and observed, witnesses and participants in a communal experience which yet respects individuality. The outdoor setting of a festival, whether beneath the sun or stars, highlights this wonderful sense of community. We should all be grateful to George Wein and other producers, and to the many people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make festivals like the Newport possible.
For the complete schedule of events visit the Newport Jazz Festival website .