Jonathan Batiste performing at a previous Newport Jazz Festival. He will return this year to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the festival. A PLAN TO LIVEN UP THE SUMMER MONTHS BECOMES ONE OF THE LONGEST-RUNNING FESTIVALS
It was in the winter of 1953 that Elaine Lorillard first walked into the Storyville jazz club, downstairs beneath the Copley Square Hotel in Boston. The wife of a wealthy businessman, her goal was to enlist the club owner, George Wein—an established jazz promoter at the time—to come up with an idea to liven up the summer months in the upscale resort town of Newport, RI, where she and her husband lived.
Wein was underwhelmed by the request; he’d seen too many business ideas floated late at night in a smoky jazz club turn to ash by the light of day. It wasn’t until a few nights later, when Lorillard returned with her husband, Louis, that Wein agreed to help them with their cause.
The result of that initial meeting became the first annual Newport Jazz Festival, held at the Newport Casino on Bellevue Ave. “The location is one of the reasons it was so successful,” said Wein. Produced for $20,000 ($173,000 today), the festival drew nearly 7,000 people, and attracted music lovers to the coastal town from as far away as New York City.
The festival hosted a variety of artists, ranging from Billie Holiday to some lesser-known local acts, and brought panels of musicians and experts to discuss the academic aspects of jazz, all with the intention of developing the festival into a reputable event that would rival the popular classical music festivals of the time. “We called it the ‘First Annual’ jazz festival, but we didn’t know if there’d be a second. We figured if classical music had a festival, then why couldn’t jazz? We wanted to create that kind of respect for jazz—and we got it,” Wein said.
Following the success of the first Newport Jazz Festival, the weekend-long affair has grown into one of the region’s most anticipated events of the year, attracting more than 10,000 people annually to the current festival site within the vast Fort Adams State Park, right along the Narragansett Bay.
Produced by Wein ever since its inception, the Festival has hosted some of jazz’s greatest moments, including: Miles Davis’ 1955 solo on “Round Midnight”; the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s landmark 1956 performance of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” which featured a blistering 27-chorus saxophone solo by Paul Gonsalves; and the 1964 album Miles & Monk at Newport, documenting performances by Miles Davis in 1958 and Thelonious Monk in 1963. Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Muddy Waters, Nina Simone and Diana Krall are just a few of the big names that have performed through out the festival’s 60-year history.
During one of the early years, Wein decided to schedule an afternoon of folk performers. The idea proved so popular that in 1959, he was able to create an entirely separate event: the Newport Folk Festival, which continues to this day.
This year’s Newport Jazz Festival will commemorate the 60th Anniversary with the annual Gala event on Saturday, August 2 at Newport’s famous mansion, The Breakers.
Wein’s pioneering work created the template for how jazz festivals are run around the world today, but it also changed how public perceived a musical genre that had yet to garner respect. “When we started Jazz Fest,” said Wein, “there were just aspirations for jazz; we wanted it to be accepted. Now it is accepted, and it’s gratifying after all these years to see people proud of being part of jazz.”