Newport returns to its jazz roots

Covering the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 was like being present at the creation without knowing it at the time. Yes, we reporters saw the rarity of gathering the crowned heads of jazz on a rain-flecked July weekend in the unsyncopated resort town of Newport, R.I.

But no one predicted that producer George Wein would be doing encores around the world for the next half century and counting.

I caught up with Mr. Wein by telephone in New Orleans to talk about old times and the 50th anniversary festival in Newport next week.

From pianist Dave Brubeck to vibraphonist Gary Burton to trumpeter Dave Douglas to violinist Regina Carter - to name a few - today's generations of jazz players will rub shoulders as their forebears did in 1954. What a gas (in old jazzspeak) to welcome back two of the few remaining '54 alumni: bassist Percy Heath and saxophonist Lee Konitz.

Producer Wein sought something that would do for jazz what Tanglewood in the Berkshires does for classical music. He boldly proclaimed the 1954 event to be the "first annual."

From that milestone can be counted thousands of music festivals, not only jazz but folk, pop, rock, and more. (Without Newport would there have been a Woodstock?) But perhaps Newport's most profound effect was to dignify the public image of jazz and its place in society: Prior to Newport and its progeny, many saw jazz as unfit for polite company. Afterward it came to be more widely embraced as America's indigenous art form. Interestingly, for all the thousands of tickets sold in 1954, the profit was $142.50.

Who expected a 25th anniversary at the White House, featuring President Carter as bop vocalist with Dizzy Gillespie on "Salt Peanuts"? Who expected New York's Lincoln Center to make jazz a full partner with opera, symphony, ballet, and film? Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra come to Newport Aug. 15.

Maybe Wein would rather have played piano (as he will with Marian McPartland next week), but he pursued the business of jazz. The joys and vicissitudes pour forth in his 2003 autobiography, "Myself Among Others: A Life in Music."

Newport became a peak in the evolution of jazz from honky-tonk to national institution. In 1918, Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet compared Sidney Bechet's "gripping" clarinet solos to Bach's music. Carnegie Hall welcomed Benny Goodman in the '30s. Stravinsky wrote "Ebony Concerto" for the Woody Herman band in the '40s. Sacred concerts came along by Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck (whose "Gates of Justice" is on the schedule for Aug. 11 in Newport).

The essence of jazz - improvisation, freedom, and discipline - influences other arts and becomes a metaphor for group creativity. Corporations identify with jazz, as in naming Newport the JVC Jazz Festival. But jazz was still a poor relation when Newport's high society took a chance on it in 1954.

Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Gene Krupa, Lennie Tristano - these among many others had never played a gig like the one on the pristine grass tennis courts of the Newport Casino. "I don't mind them being seated on the courts, but I wish they wouldn't bounce up and down," said a grounds official. Between bounces some puzzled looks hinted that real jazz may have upset listeners' stereotypes.

"When you see thousands of people obviously enjoying something, and you aren't," a young man said, "it kind of makes you feel as if you're missing something." Among the enjoyers was the ambassador of Argentina, chatting about clarinet playing with Pee Wee Russell at an elegant postconcert party. Newport swung on, and two years later, wow, the landmark performance of Duke Ellington's "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," when saxophonist Paul Gonsalves blew an incredible 27 choruses.

(I'm told master drummer Jo Jones spurred the band from offstage by beating time with a rolled-up copy of The Christian Science Monitor.)

I asked what Wein would like to say before the next milestone.

"I went to the ball with a girl called Mademoiselle Jazz in 1954, and I'm taking that girl to the ball again in 2004." He means the 50th Newport will be like the first: all jazz. Plenty of innovation but none of the pop, rock, etc., that became part of various later "jazz" festivals trying to broaden their audiences. On Aug. 14 and 15, from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., three stages will be swinging at the harborside Fort Adams State Park. Late greats such as Charlie Parker, Count Basie, and John Coltrane will be saluted but not imitated by current stars such as Jon Faddis, Phil Woods, and Roy Haynes, says Wein.

Ornette Coleman will be there. Charles Mingus lives on in the Mingus Big Band. Toshiko Akiyoshi adds a familiar international touch and Britain's Jamie Cullum adds a new one, riding in on his recording debut, "twentysomething." Evening events at other sites take place Aug. 11, 12, and 13. (See the complete schedule at

There were no websites in 1954. But the ripples and waves from Newport say that, boy, did the word get out.

In 2002, 46 years later, George and his wife, Joyce, an African-American, were invited by his alma mater, Boston University, for a symposium on jazz and interracial marriage. Toward the end Wein noted with pleasure that most of the questions had been about jazz rather than race. It was perhaps a sign of the changes that jazz helped usher in.

Like a young woman's comment from the floor: "There seems to be something about jazz and jazz musicians that commands respect." One might say jazz pays respect too. The following year, Boston University announced a $1 million gift from the Weins to launch an endowment in African-American Studies.

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