What started out in 1954 as a modest two-day event in Newport, R.I. - produced by a New Orleans stride pianist named George Wein - has grown into the largest musical festival of its kind, with Wein still at the helm. The event (now called the Kool Jazz Festival) has become a coast-to-coast affair, this year taking place in 22 cities from this month to November.
The talent that first year included Ella Fitzgerald, Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Peterson, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Billie Holiday , Stan Kenton, and George Shearing.
Although Lester, Billie, and Stan are no longer living, the others are still as active as ever. They, and many other names both old and new, will perform in concerts across the United States this season.
The indefatigable Ella opened this year's events on June 4 at the Kennedy Center in Washington to a wildly enthusiastic audience. The next day the entire center - including all four concert halls as well as outdoor spaces - was invaded by a seemingly endless parade of jazz musicians, from Dizzie Gillespie to Sun Ra and his Arkestra, from Spyro Gyra to Lionel Hampton, from Anita O'Day to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and on and on.
Concerts went on simultaneously all day, from noon until midnight, and, as in last year's festival, were structured so that concertgoers could move around at will from hall to hall, staying for as little or as long as they wished. This approach made for a bit of confusion and a frustrated wish to be able to clone oneself so as not to miss anything.
But it was a lot of fun. I wondered, though, how the musicians felt about having part of the audience (sometimes quite a large part) get up and leave at the end of a tune. I was soon to learn how at least one of them felt. Gerry Mulligan, who was on stage with his big band, commented (with tongue only slightly in cheek) as a portion of his audience got up to leave after only a couple of numbers: ''I must say, I find this singularly depressing.'' He probably felt relieved as a new crop began to file into the auditorium.
Washington had ideal weather for the all-day Saturday event, and the outdoor performances drew sizable crowds right up until midnight. The last bunch of people were unable to tear themselves away from the superhuman energy of pianist Dorothy Donegan - nor did they let her tear herself away, as they demanded number after number.
Happily, the festival covered a wide range of styles, from the avant-garde of the Art Ensemble of Chicago to the rock- and pop-oriented jazz-fusion of Spyro Gyra. And there was more than enough mainstream swing and bebop to satisfy everyone.
Fine performances were offered by Horace Silver's group; Clark Terry and his Jolly Giants (with the great classic blues ''shouter'' Joe Turner, who really needed no microphone); and the mismatched but individually talented Festival All-Stars (trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist-flutist Lew Tabackin, pianist Joanne Brackeen, bassist Eddie Gomez, and drummer Billy Hart).
Singers were scarce at this festival, but the ones I heard were excellent. Pianist-singer Dave Frishberg is about as understated as anyone could be, but his clever lyrics and slightly nasal voice are both musically adept and entertaining. He sang and played songs about his ''attorney Bernie,'' about baseball players, and about the sports page - ''the only place to go when a fellow wants to know the score.''
Anita O'Day was a pleasure to see and hear, as usual, and took control of the situation as she always does. After only one short rehearsal with a trio that included a pianist she had never met until that day, she still made it all work by the sheer force of her musicianship.
It was good to hear Jon Hendricks and Company, the only vocal jazz group at the festival. It sounded tight and polished, even with a new vocalist who only recently replaced Jon's daugher Michelle.
Etta Jones, who sang with a foot-stomping organ trio featuring saxophonist Houston Person, packed the tiny Terrace Theater upstairs. At one point she did an imitation of Billie Holiday that was so good it was downright eerie - close your eyes, and it was Billie! The Philadelphia story
While the Washington event was in progress, Philadelphia also began its 10 -day festival, with a warm and loving tribute to pianist-composer McCoy Tyner.
A large crowd attended the event, at the Chestnut Club at Pagano's Restaurant. The intimate atmosphere was right for this very special salute, which opened with a 1959 film clip of Tyner playing in the now legendary John Coltrane group with Jimmy Garrison on bass, Coltrane on tenor sax, and Elvin Jones on drums.
The film was followed by a series of short speeches which could have been tedious, but were exactly the opposite, given by Mr. Wein, various local TV, radio, and newspaper personalities, and several representatives of the City of Philadelphia. Each recognized Tyner for the musical giant that he is, and praised him for his humanitarianism in words that were both heartfelt and often very amusing.
The all-round good feeling in the room must have sparked the musical inspiration of the musicians, who proceeded to play several of Tyner's compositions - it was a marvelous performance. Pianist Kenny Barron, reflecting a lot of Tyner in his approach, dazzled the audience with the fierce energy and creative depth of his solos, while Tyner's regular sideman, violinist John Blake , outdid himself with his vigorous and rhythmical way of playing an instrument not well known in jazz.
Charles Fambrough and John Lee traded bass chores beautifully, while alto saxophonist Gary Bartz and drummer Wilbery Fletcher both added their own creative element to make the whole ensemble swing like nobody's business.
Grover Washington Jr. was in the audience, joining the band for a couple of numbers on soprano sax. McCoy, a big, quiet man, was obviously pleased and very touched by it all, and he took over the piano more than willingly when he was begged to ''sit in'' for the last number. Everyone in the room rose for a resounding ovation when it was over. A magical night indeed. Other cities
Similar events also began in two cities added to the festival this year, St. Louis and Cleveland. The Pittsburgh festival has already taken place, and a three-day event will take place in Hampton, Va., next weekend.
But the greatest of all - the grandchild of the Newport Jazz Festival - is the New York festival, which runs from June 24 through July 3, with concerts in New York City, Saratoga, N.Y., and New Jersey. New York's festival will feature several special concerts, including the debut of the new New York-based Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin Big Band, a series of new-music concerts, a New Jersey jazz picnic, a Dixieland boat ride on the Staten Island Ferry, and a special tribute to the late pianist Bill Evans.