Newport at 50: A Golden Weekend
Festival Productions Inc. knew how to throw a party Aug. 11-15 for the 50th anniversary of one of the great events in jazz. It was unfortunate that the host, founding producer George Wein, couldn't be present for most of it. Everywhere you turned, there was great music by high-caliber jazz artists at the 2004 edition of the JVC Newport Jazz Festival to celebrate its 1954 beginnings.
It was fitting that Dave Brubeck opened. The pianist has been the festival's most frequent attraction since he first played here in 1955. This was his 32nd year at Newport - and it featured three appearances by the 83-year-old jazz legend.
Wednesday, August 11 featured a Brubeck sacred cantata, "The Gates of Justice," celebrating the bond between Jewish-Americans and African-Americans as well as their common struggles. Written in 1969, the work remains a masterful nod to brotherhood. Brubeck's quartet was joined by the Providence Singers, a 14-piece chamber orchestra and two vocal soloists - 94 performers in all. The sellout crowd of 1,000 also saw Brubeck often leaning back in his piano chair, marveling at what the ensemble was bringing to his extended work at Rogers High School's auditorium.
Brubeck also opened the festival's gala the next evening with a solo version of one of his classical pieces, then joined saxophonist James Moody on "Take the 'A' Train." He also performed with his quartet at the three-stage Fort Adams marathon two days later with nearly an hour of his quartet's cerebral swing. He closed with a tune that he said he improvised at Newport four decades ago based on the rhythm of the word "Newport."
Wein didn't let abdominal surgery the prior week keep him from The Breakers' black-tie tented gala, a fund-raiser for the Preservation Society of Newport County held at The Breakers, a Vanderbilt family mansion now owned by the Society. He talked about the respect that jazz has developed in the U.S. since the first American Jazz Festival (as it was then called) took place in Newport in July 1954.
Harry Connick Jr.'s Big Band headlined a traditional Friday night at the stately, rainy Newport Casino (and International Tennis Hall of Fame) - right where it all began 50 summers ago.
The traditional Newport weekend at picturesque Fort Adams State Park was an embarrassment of riches. Longtime festival veterans - and only a handful of prominent newcomers, like Jamie Cullum and Dug Wamble - were featured on three stages running simultaneously with more acts than usual and tacked on an extra hour or more each day. It drew 9,000 on Saturday and a 6,500 on Sunday, the latter diminished by those who fled town in advance of bad weather.
The weekend's finest moments:
- A blistering set by the Newport All-Stars (with guitarist Howard Alden, trumpeter Randy Sandke, saxophonist James Moody, clarinetist Ken Peplowski, drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Cedar Walton and bassist Peter Washington).
- The John Faddis Jazz Orchestra (formerly known as the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra) with special guests Ken Peplowski, Jackie McLean and Phil Woods, James Moody, Clark Terry and Ron Carter) was strong. It missed some easy opportunities to create "great Newport moments" by mixing and bringing all of those guests on stage together.
- The Saturday closer, a "John Coltrane Remembered" set, featured McCoy Tyner, Michael Brecker, Ravi Coltrane, Christian McBride and Roy Haynes. They performed "Moment's Notice, "Blues Memories" (a reflective Tyner piano solo) and "The Promise" in electrifying and passionate fashion. The set seemed short for a headlining band of that magnitude, but Newport was bracing for a visit from the remnants of Hurricane Charley. The rain did visit - with a huge downpour that ended around 8 a.m. on Sunday.
- A Jazz Messengers Reunion set remembering Art Blakey on Sunday featured saxophonists Donald Harrison and Bobby Watson, trombonist Steve Turre and trumpeter Roy Hargrove with pianist Cedar Walton, drummer Lewis Nash and bassist Peter Washington. Their opening salvo to chase the rains away was matched next by the robust swagger of the Mingus Big Band.
- The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra provided more powerhouse music later. It, too, featured many special guests: vibes player Gary Burton, violinist Regina Carter, saxophonist James Carter, and trumpeters Clark Terry and Nicholas Payton. The band closed that 90-minute set featuring James Carter in a fitting re-creation/extension of Duke Ellington's classic 1956 moment in history: "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue."
- Saxophonist Ornette Coleman's quartet brought a giant of jazz from outside the mainstream to the main stage, opening with the strong "Air Raid" and closing his six-tune set with the classic "Lonely Woman."
- The festival crackled to a close with the Herbie Hancock-Wayne Shorter-Dave Holland-Brian Blade quartet, which is pushing the mainstream jazz envelope with its extended explorations of rhythm and form.