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This article by Richard K. Skelly was prepared for the February 4,
2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Newport Jazz Marks its 50th Year
In the summer of 1954, George Wein, a young jazz piano player and jazz
club owner from Boston, teamed up with tobacco magnate Louis Lorillard
and other financial backers to produce the first Newport Jazz
Festival. Held every summer in Newport, Rhode Island, the festival –
the site of many historic performances that helped to shape the
history of jazz and later served as a model for other jazz and folk
music gatherings – will celebrate 50 years in a precarious business
If you have never been to the Newport Jazz Festival – after all, hotel
rooms in Newport go for upwards of $200 a night during the festival –
the festival will come to you this Friday, February 6, at McCarter
Theater. The Newport Jazz Festival 50th anniversary tour is meant to
showcase some of the musicians who have played at the festival through
the years – dating back, for example, to 1956 when Duke Ellington’s
band made a historic, live recording "Duke Ellington at Newport."
Festival founder Wein, producer of the Newport Jazz Festival, the
annual JVC Jazz Festival in New York (formerly the Kool Jazz
Festival), and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in New
Orleans, among others, has a reputation in some jazz and blues circles
for being a hard-nosed businessman. But the reality is that he has had
to be. Over the years, concerts have to be advertised; the artists
have to be paid; concert hall rentals need to be paid. Everyone needs
to be paid, including his 50-odd employees at Festival Productions,
based in New York City.
Wein recently published his memoirs, "Myself Among Others: A Life in
Music" (DaCapo Press, 2003), a fascinating, 600-page book that
chronicles the history of the Newport Jazz Festival and the growth of
his company. The book also chronicles the eventual success of the
Newport Folk Festival, where Bob Dylan first performed with an
electric band in 1965 and changed the course of rock music.
Wein also delves into the success of the annual New Orleans Jazz &
Heritage Festival, which got started in the Crescent City in the early
1970s and combines good food, folkways and crafts demonstrations, and
music on 12 stages for seven days, drawing people from the U.S.,
Europe, and around the world.
"Over the years, we’ve built up a family of jazz musicians who
understand each other well," Wein explained in a phone interview from
his office on Manhattan’s Upper West Side last week. "One of the
concepts of jazz that we like in our musicians is the ability to play
any type of music and make it sound like their own. The people [on
this tour] can play swing, bebop or modal music and still reflect
their own personalities."
Saxophonist and flutist James Moody, now 78 years old and still going
strong, will be accompanied by a virtuoso lineup of seasoned musicians
on Friday night: pianist Cedar Walton, trumpeter Randy Brecker,
saxophonist James Carter, guitarist Howard Alden, bassist Peter
Washington, and drummer Lewis Nash.
"All of the players have worked with me in concerts all over the
world," Wein says. He describes the relative youngster, 30-something
saxophonist James Carter, as "a remarkable musician who can play like
Ben Webster or Archie Shepp."
The Newport Jazz Festival 50th anniversary tour will encompass 55
cities, starting on the East coast and the band will change midway
through for the tour’s second leg, which will target theaters and
concert halls on the West coast.
Asked about the health of the Newport Jazz Festival these days, Wein
says the festival is well received by year-round residents of Newport.
Held each year shortly after the Newport Folk Festival in Fort Adams
State Park, it is a boon to the local economy every August, in the
same way the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a shot
in the arm for the Crescent City’s hotel and restaurant business each
"We call it the JVC Jazz Festival at Newport now, and that’s important
to us," Wein stresses, "because frankly, without our sponsor, JVC, it
wouldn’t exist. The whole thing is very solid now. People love going
out to Fort Adams State Park in Newport, and I think it’s one of the
most beautiful festival sites in the world. You’ve got the view of the
bay in the background and nice breezes coming in off the water," he
This year’s Newport JVC Jazz Festival will be held August 12 to 15.
Marking an important milestone, Wein says, "this year we’ll attempt to
define what the Newport Jazz Festival has meant for jazz in the last
Pressed for memories of the earliest festivals of the mid-1950s, Wein
says he remembers rain on the second day of the inaugural Newport Jazz
"I’ll never forget looking up at the sky on the second night of the
first festival and seeing rain clouds coming," he recalls. "Louis
Lorillard was our sponsor then, and he said we’d have to give them all
their money back.
"I said, ‘Hold on, we’ve worked too hard on this thing for too long to
just give them all their money back!’ So the evening crowd brought
their umbrellas and raincoats and they sat in the rain for the next
five hours and listened to jazz. The next day, photos of that went out
all over the world."
Saxophonist, flutist, singer, and composer James Moody, the elder
statesman on the tour, was raised in Newark. Drafted into the Air
Force after high school, his first paid jobs were in the Air Force
"The armed forces were all segregated in those days, you know," Moody
says from his home near San Diego. Although he started out on alto sax
as a 15-year-old, Moody switched to tenor sax after seeing the Count
Basie band at the old Adams Theater in Newark.
"I went to hear Basie’s band to hear Lester Young, but he wasn’t there
that night," Moody recalls. Tenor saxophonists Buddy Tate and Don Byas
were there instead. "They both came up to the microphone and took
solos, and I thought, ‘Gee, I’d like to do that, I’ll switch to
Moody attended Arts High School in Newark and graduated from East Side
High School before going into the Air Force. After getting out of the
Air Force, where he met a young trumpeter named Dizzy Gillespie and
other musicians who would make up Gillespie’s first band, Moody moved
back to the New York area to work with Gillespie.
"In 1949 in Stockholm, I recorded ‘Moody’s Mood For Love,’ and that
became a big hit on radio. When I got back from Europe – I wasn’t
going to come back, initially – I went on tour with my own band,"
Moody has been nominated for several Grammy awards and is one of a
handful of survivors from bebop’s golden era, the early and mid-1950s.
Aside from his musicianship, Moody has a great gift for making
audiences laugh with him, wherever he happens to be performing. In
this fashion, he’s converted thousands of people into jazz fans
through the years. His performance of "Benny’s From Heaven," sung to
the tune of "Pennies From Heaven" always leaves his audiences
Of the band performing this Friday, composed of younger and older
virtuoso musicians – all of them veterans in their own right – Moody
says simply, "we’ve all played together a lot before. So whatever we
decide to do, it will be wonderful, that much I know. It doesn’t get
any better than people like Cedar Walton on piano and Lewis Nash on
– Richard J. Skelly
Newport Jazz Festival, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,
609-258-2787. "Newport Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary Tour" features
all-star band with James Moody, reeds; Randy Brecker, trumpet; Cedar
Walton, trumpet; James Carter, tenor sax; Howard Alden, guitar; Lewis
Nash, drums; Peter Washington, bass. $34 to $40. Friday, February 6, 8
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