Today’s jazz fan could only dream of a line-up like this: Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz. Yet those are just a few of the artists who performed at the first Newport Jazz Festival July 17-18, 1954.
Newport is the granddaddy of the jazz festivals. The Monterey Jazz Festival kicked off in 1958 while the Montreux Jazz Festival began in 1967. Jazz critic Leonard Feather, in fact, once called the Newport Jazz Festival with giving rise to “the festival era.” The festival was organized 55 years ago by George Wein, who is still working with the event today.
While the festival sought to cover all forms of jazz, it was also cognizant of popular music. Thus, for example, in 1958 both Ray Charles and Chuck Berry performed at the festival. And, despite the quality of music, things weren’t always wonderful. At the 1960 festival, riots broke out when, the New York Times reported, “hundreds of youthful toughs” broke into the grounds when they couldn’t get tickets. The National Guard was called in, tear gas was fired and much of the event ended up being cancelled. In addition, the festival was not held in 1961, although a group of businessmen did get together and sponsor something called “Music at Newport.” It featured such artists as Judy Garland, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Vaughan, Maynard Ferguson, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Stan Getz and Mulligan.
The “Newport Jazz Festival” returned under that name in 1962. Not only did the festival continue to grow, it continued to broaden its musical scope. The broad range was perhaps epitomized in 1969 when Wein sought to explore the growing fusion of jazz and rock. Although such jazz luminaries as Miles Davis, Rahashann Roland Kirk, Freddie Hubbard, Bill Evans and Phil Woods were on the bill, there was also plenty of rock. The second night, July 4, was billed as “an evening of jaz-rock” and included Blood, Sweat & Tears, Ten Years After, Jethro Tull and Jeff Beck. Davis, John Mayall and Frank Zappa and the Mothers (Kirk had actually performed with the band at a joint concert a year earlier) were the artists appearing the next afternoon but the night of July 5 is when things got out of hand.
Following performances by Brubeck, Art Blakey and the Gary Burton Quartet, Sly and the Family Stone took the stage. Promoters opened a gate to prevent damage to a fence by crowds outside the grounds. At that point, Rolling Stone reported, “bands of wild hippies, LSD on their breath, swarmed through, pushing the bleacher audience forward, vaulting over the VIP box seats, shoving into the press section, slamming the customers into the stage, all the while Sly, monarch of his own fascist jungle, urging everyone higher! Higher! Higher!” The festival wasn’t cancelled, however, and closed with Led Zeppelin, which went on stage at 1 a.m. on Monday, July 7.
Although the problems did not cause cancellation of the festival, events in 1971 — and occurring during an odd time compared to 1969 — would lead the festival to relocate to New York. The 1971 festival again featured jazz greats like Brubeck, Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Mann, Gillespie and Mulligan, On the night of July 3, however, young gate crashers once again broke through a fence and stormed the stage. But this wasn’t because of Sly and the Family Stone. No, this time the action occurred while Dionne Warwick was singing, ”What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love.” (whcih seems like an odd artist or song to cause such commotion).
Beause it was evident the Newport location couldn’t hold all the people who wanted to attend, Wein relocated the festival to New York. It eventually became known as the JVC Jazz Festival, although it no longer is. In 1981, the festival returned to Rhode Island, taking place at a state park on Newport Harbor. Although Wein sold the festival in 2007, he is back in charge this year with the event being called George Wein’s Jazz Festival 55. And the festival remains true to a broad range of music. This year’s performers include not only Branford Marsalis, Joshua Redman, Tony Bennett, Brubeck and Joe Lovano, but also Mos Def and a variety of modern avant garde jazz artists.
So, those attending JazzFest this weekend are engaged in a festival tradition that began 55 years ago to the day JazzFest kicks off.
By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.