Corrections or additions?

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

this August.

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

spring.

"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

adds.

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

50 years."

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

Festival.

"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

Negro Band.

"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

tenor.’"

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 explains.

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

laughing.

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

drums."

– 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

p.m.


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