Newport 50th Anniversary Celebration: A Preview
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.