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Swinging -- very carefully -- at Newport

By Melvin Maddocks / August 31, 1981



Fort Adams looks down with old-fashioned authority on a grassy sward sloping to Narragansett Bay. This military position -- so quaintly commanding land and sea in the day of intercontinental missiles -- has now revamped itself to serve a modern musical strategy.

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On an August weekend a bandstand was erected at the base of the fort's stone wall, and on a Sunday afternoon the final program of the Newport Jazz Festival wafted to a crowd of 5,000 or so, lounging on the grass between the fort and the bay.

In the old days -- when mobs were storming the retaining fence at Freebody Park and capturing the stage as if it were a beachhead -- the Newport Jazz Festival needed a fort. But that was mostly in the '60s when everybody, including jazz audiences, felt obliged to stage a revolution. In the 10 years since this gilded Rhode Island town last dared to permit a Newport Jazz Festival , things, they have been a-changin" -- but not as the wild old song predicted.

Nothing could have been further from the thoughts of the audience in the shadow of Fort Adams than revolution. Linen tablecloths were spread out on the grass and graced by gourmet meals from huge hampers, served, sometimes, on real plates with real silverware. While Dave Brubeck played "Take Five," a voice could be heared passionately whispering, "I mustm have your recipe for fettucine Alfredo." On at least onepicnic spread, a vase of assorted flowers formed the centerpiece.

After lunch, as Dizzy Gillespie dug into "Night in Tunisia," young men in designer trunks opened to the financial section of their Sunday New York Times.

One man, who seemed to be playing the conscience of jazz festivals past, protested while Nancy Wilson was singing: "She's crying her heart out, and we're falling asleep. Is that right?"

In the bay the sailboats came and went. Occasionally a yacht crowded with listeners tooted its whistle to signal appreciation for something artful, like Milt Jackson's solo on "Round Midnight." Now and then a black brigantine at anchor fired a connon to applaud, but nobody on land could deduce the taste -- modern? mainstream? trad? -- from the approving bangs. Nor did the rather sedate booms noticeably fire up the audience, prone to turn a tan back on the music and wander off in the direction of the bay for a dip.

The scene, like a lot of '80s scenes, seemed a little unreal, a little staged -- out of an archive of pop-art memories, like so many of the '80s movies. It doesn't do to extrapolate a decade from an afternoon of jazz and sunbathing. But, with names like Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck, and Dizzy Gillespie on the stand, who could avoid a pronounced (if pleasant) sense of replay?

As the sun started cradling toward the west, the last of the swimmers came out of the water and joined the crowd clapping to the sounds of Lionel Hampton. And then, at last, the festival broke into dance.

Hamp is a great closing act -- an indefatigable crowd-pleaser who somehow makes everybody in the audience believe they got rhythm. Hamp took off his jacket, exposing a scarlet vest, and got down to business. He dragged out what once would have been called his killer-dillers -- "Hey, Ba-Ba-Re-Bop" and "In the Mood" -- and the crowd, well, jitterbugged.

It wasn't exactly back-to-the-Savoy-Ballroom time. What is it about jazz festivals that seems to bring only lesser dancers to their errant feet, happily missnapping the beat? Still, at last, the dilettantes of nostalgic hip gave it their all as Hamp -- may he be forgiven! -- stomped out with that old flag-waver , "When the Saints Go Marching In."

There wasn't, it appeared, a silent horn in the harbor.

Sunday at Newport was hardly a portrait of jazz '81 -- not even close to it. But, if one didn't push the point too far, it was perhaps, after all, a miniature portrait of America '81 -- earnestly hoping to be both conservative and swinging and, in the meanwhile, taking one sunny day at a time.