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NEWPORT JAZZ @ 60 : TRIBUTES TO PAST FESTS AND ITS FOUNDER

                “IT RAINED BOTH WATER FROM THE HEAVENS AND MUSIC FROM THE STAGES.”

                                                                        AUGUST 1-3 2014 

As if in the tradition of some of the past Festivals the weather made a grand entrance at this year’s NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL:  It poured on Saturday, raw on Sunday.   Mud notwithstanding the music was the sunshine that warmed our hearts.

When the NJF was held in July celebrating Louis Armstrong’s birthday (sic) there was the inevitable day of rain.  But there has never been a rainout.  Once in a while a hurricane breezed by but no cancellations.

Newcomers to the now three-day event were not prepared so their makeshift rain gear from feets to head hardly covered the topic (pun intended.)

This the 60th Anny –minus the years Producer/Founder GEORGE WEIN moved it to New York City after the 1971 riot –curse you tabloids for that sobriquet– the celebratory crowds* were unanimous in their enthusiasm.  (As Down Beat New York Editor I was proud to be asked to be part of his NYC welcoming committee in 1972.)

[* Friday 2,500 at the grounds; Tennis Hall of Fame Concert ca. 3,000; Saturday 8,000 sold, 6,000 stalwart attendees; Sunday 6.800.  Not quite as sold out as the previous weekend's Folk Festival, both part of the Newport Festival Foundation created to preserve the Festivals' continuance.]

I was told by some kiosk renters that sales were robust; you couldn’t get near the haberdashery tent (60th Anny shirts, caps, etc.)

 

SO MUCH FOR COMMERCE; LAISSEZ LE BON TON ROULLER.

In 1954 Wein began what would become the world’s premier outdoor music festival at the Newport, Rhode Island playground of the rich, to may I say, enliven them during summer doldrums.  Wein was encouraged to do so by The Lorrilards, tobacco heirs.  Wein once told me that all outdoor music festivals worldwide used his model, if not his advisers and crew, for their own creations, including Woodstock.

All stops were pulled as Carolyn McClair and her publicity crew got press there who had never been to a NJF.  I still find that hard to fathom.  How can you write about jazz and NOT go to Newport?!

In 2000 Wein cadged together a panel to discuss Jazz At The New Millennium.  This year, in the midst of the driving storm, Wein biographer Nate Chinen chaired a panel consisting of Wein, Professors Henry Louis Gates, Ingrid Monson and John Szwed to discuss where we are now and where are we going.  Enlightenment and insight does not cover the topic.  Warts and all you left feeling bullish.  The tent at the Harbor Stage was packed.

If you stayed under that tent –who wanted to move?– you were treated to some retro moments by pianist Dick Hyman, bassist Jay Leonhart and guitarist Howard Alden.  Rain songs reigned (ouch!) as loose and friendly a concert as I’ve seen there. You were, in effect, in someone’s livingroom.  Hyman e-d me later lamenting that he left out a few wet ones.

 

TENNIS HALL OF FAME CASINO

The “hats and cats” (“High Society” 1956) reference by Cole Porter is precursor to this concert.  Formerly the welcoming concert to the patrons it is now open to the public and works as an NFF fundraiser.  Here is where the retro began in earnest for 2014, Friday night.

Dee Dee Bridgewater and her new quintet featuring trumpeter Theo Croker opened with her renditions of Billie Holiday fare culled from her CD and off Broadway show.  Harking back to Lady’s days with Teddy Wilson and Lester Young, the brooch of seven tunes covered the career including the sad ending of it.

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra followed with what Wein called the “most moving concert” of the weekend.  The LCJO brought new arrangements by members of the band who had never even thought of arranging before.  I can just picture Marsalis during rehearsals with a chair and whip saying, “Get up wid it!.”

The charts were by the likes of Carlos Henriquez, Victor Goines, Walter Blanding, Sherman Irby, of tunes from past NJF recordings by such as Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan, Duke Ellington.  Marsalis dug into the archives and came  up with tunes that may have escaped some of our ken.

Miraculously it stopped raining when the band reappeared on Saturday at the Fort Stage for more of the same.  Included were music by a reunion Old and New Testament Count Basie Bands, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane.  Missing for me, however, the  NJF moments featuring Louis, Miles, Dizzy, the Buck Clayton All Stars, trombonists JJ Johnson and Kai Winding, and some of the vocalists such as Anita O’day, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.  But why get picky?

For those who still decry Wynton. take this.  His is the most influential and important thing that has happened for our music than anyone since Maestro Ellington perhaps even Louis.  And what talent scouts they were!

 

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Saturday’s weather kept many of us in the press tent listening to those who were appearing at the nearby Quad Stage: Brian Blade, SF Collective, Cecile McLorin Salvant and Dave Holland and watching the Fort Stage on CCTV, Miguel Zenon and Darcy James Argue Bands and notably Gregory Porter who struggled mightily with the elements.

Dr. John took ill in New York and had to cancel so the others filled in.  No hardship that as the Brubeck Brothers played an extra long set as did the Mingus Big Band, David Sanborn with Joey DeFrancesco and Bobby McFerrin from the Fort Stage.  The latter got into the crowd with a wireless and had some join-in on “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” with an interchanging personal pronoun.

During the Ron Carter set at the Harbor Stage a marriage proposal was proffered during “My Funny Valentine.”  A first for the NJF.  I’ve seen them on scoreboards at baseball and football stadia but never here.  Don’t ask; I don’t know the result.

Meanwhile back at the Quad Stage Hizzoner the NJF Maestro led what may be his last Newport All Star Band.  “They are all, stars but I make them All Stars,” he quipped.  For 2014 they were Anat Cohen, Lew Tabackin, Randy Brecker, Alden, Leonhart and Clarence Penn.  Maestro Wein conducted from the keys.

Wein, who was tooling around in his Wein Machine golf cart, noted that he didn’t know if he’d be back conducting the Newport All Stars for a curtain call in 2015.

The concluding set for me was the NJF premiere of the Django Festival All Stars.  Organized by Pat Philips and Ettore Strata and led by bassist Brian Torff this band of Django Reinhardt acolytes joyously play the music of the gypsy guitarist.  Philips told me that the band will play the Fort (Main) Stage next year.

…and finally this from George Wein himself in remembrance of the first NJF:

“I remember Lee Konitz [--who as the last of the 1954 crew was there in 2014--] talking a reticent Lenny Tristano into making one of his few personal appearances…

and my stupidity in telling Dizzy Gillespie, who had the comic timing of Chaplin, not to try to be funny in his performances…

“Gene Krupa, who was one of the stars of the evening, got upset when we had a jam session and didn’t ask him to play drums,  His words were, ‘I play drums, too…’

“Since we couldn’t afford Stan Kenton with his band, we asked hm to come and emcee, reading an eloquent script written by Nat Hentoff…

“Then, of course, there was the memorable reunion of Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson. and of course Lester ‘Prez’ Young, whose words were before he went on stage, ‘I guess I’ll have to go up and help the Lady out…’

“John Lewis founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet, accompanied Ella Fitzgerald, while Horace Silver filled in for him in the MJQ’s set.  What a festival!

“But the real thrill is not in the memories.  It’s the fact that 60 years later I still have the privilege of producing this wonderful festival.”

[N.B.: It was the hugging-est one I've ever attended.]

As I was walking up the path towards the back of the Fort Stage area on my way out I was beeped out of the way.  I turned to find the Wein Machine hard on my heels.  As he passed by the crowd stood like a stadium wave cheering and applauding.  The main occupant was seen to have tears in his eyes.

© by arnold jay smith, August 2014

 


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