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NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL TURNS 60 – Concert, Tour & Announcement

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It’s that time of year, again.

Le Grande Dame of Jazz Festivals which has purveyed innovative jazz for the past six decades returns August 1-3, 2014 at Fort Adams.  The celebration has already begun.

The Newport Jazz Festival sprang from the minds of George Wein and tobacco heiress Elaine Lorillard.  The latter wanted to introduce something to the summertude blandness of Newport, R.I. so they called upon a young entrepreneur who was presenting jazz at venues in Boston, MA.  It was to be the premiere outdoor music festival anywhere.  Even Woodstock used the Newport template with their engineers and producers as advisers.

Since 1954 history was made and recorded famously by the likes of Miles Davis in 1955 and beyond, Duke Ellington in 1956 and beyond, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae in 1958 and beyond, Cecil Taylor with Steve Lacy, also in ’58, Muddy Waters, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra –who flew in and out via helicopter–  Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Lambert Hendricks and Ross, a two-generation Count Basie Reunion Band featuring amongst them Prez, Sweets, Jaws, Rushing, Wess, Foster, Thad Jones and Joe Williams.  And the king of Newport appearances by Dave Brubeck in various incarnations including backing Tony Bennett.  The list seems endless.

There has always been plenty of room for newbies.  This year (2014) a full extra day of music has been added on Fri., Aug 1. just for younger and underexposed talent.  (For talent updates check out their website. http://newportjazzfest.org.)

In 1979 on the occasion of Newport’s 25th Anny President Jimmy Carter hosted an NJF party on the South Lawn of the White House.  I was there and let me tell you, as Louis Armstrong, a frequent birthday (“July 4th”) visitor might have said, it was a solid gasser, one for the record books.

Charles Mingus, in a wheelchair, was greeted specially and personally by the Pres; the surviving W.C. Handy scion was there and sang “St. Louis Blues”; Hizzoner himself leapt over my head to applaud and shake Cecil Taylor’s hand.  Carter, a former peanut farmer, attempted to sing “Salt Peanuts” with Dizzy Gillespie who jocularly asked him to go on the road with him.  Carter quipped that “after that [attempt at singing] I might have to.”  He lost the next election.  He got my vote for trying.

Another celebration this time by the Bill Clinton White House was also held there.  This time it was somewhat more legit as Pres. Clinton, after all, is a saxophonist (sic).

There is also a theater film, “Jazz On A Summer’s Day,” which captures the revelry.  Too much inebriation-induced identification with jazz for my taste, but great music.  Highlights were a summer afternoon with Anita O’day repleat with wide-brim hat and elbow length gloves, and Chico Hamilton on tympani mallets perspiringly accompanying his cellist Fred Katz.

Over the decades pianist Wein himself organized a series of Newport All Stars as road show bands.  The latest celebratory ensemble called Newport Jazz Festival: Now 60 toured in the Spring of 2014.  I caught the show at Jazz Standard in Manhattan, NYC.

The tour was co-produced by Wein and his long-time associates Dan Melnick and Darlene Chan. This showcase group is as diverse as the Festival itself: Anat Cohen on reeds, and in sneakers; Ben Allison, bass; Karrin Allyson, vocals and piano; Randy Brecker, trumpet; Peter Martin, piano; Clarence Penn, drums; Mark Whitfield, guitar.

Their repertoire was as diffused as their talent.  There was the improvised blues opener (“Blues Connection”),  jazz standards (“Round Midnight”), classic standards (“Can’t We Be Friends”), international classics (“Le Vie En Rose,” remembering Louis Armstrong), Ellingtonia (“Sophisticated Lady”).  Some tunes reflected directly on past Newport Jazz Festival highlights: the Quincy Jones arrangement of “Midnight Sun,” which originally featured a young Phil Woods, the L-H-R –perhaps Yolande Bavan in for Annie Ross– on the Jon Hendricks lyrics to “Yeah Yeah.”

Each cat had ample his or her solo space.  Allyson also scatted along with the band at one point as well as plaintively vocalizing Edith Piaf-like on “Rose” and Ross or Bavan  on “Yeah.”

“Newport Jazz Festival: Now 60″ (the group) reprises on the Fort Stage in Newport in August.

The 2014 NJF is a full three day affair, Aug.1-3 (Louis’ real birthday is Aug.  4th), plus one night at the Tennis Hall of Fame Stadium for the “hats and cats.” (Cole Porter “High Society.”)  I will be reporting back sometime thereafter after my fill of stuffies and lobster.

© arnold jay smith May 2014


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