Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals

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Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals

Jazz critic Leonard Feather once said that when the Newport Jazz Festival debuted in 1954 in Newport, Rhode Island, it initiated the "festival era" in American music. Though there had been other jazz festivals in Europe, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the Newport Folk Festival which began a few years later, did indeed popularize a new style of concert-giving, creating a music-filled community for several days of performances. In the process, the festivals made live music accessible to a large number of people and gave a huge promotional boost to two of the most truly American forms of music, jazz and folk.

In July 1954, musician and impresario George Wein organized and presented the first Newport Jazz Festival in the beautiful Rhode Island seaside town of Newport. The festival became famous for showcasing jazz greats such as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonius Monk, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis. It also gave a stage to new, even radical, voices in jazz: in 1969 the rock group Led Zeppelin played there and in 1998 Liquid Soul brought acid jazz to the venerable New England stage.

Because the festival's cutting edge music attracted many counter culture and radical fans, it became a natural site for the eruption of political demonstrations. Riots in 1960, 1969, and 1971 resulted in cancellation and, in 1972, the Newport Jazz Festival moved to New York City where it acquired an urban energy and vitality that had never been present in the sleepy town of Newport. Venues varied, with one of the most inventive being the Staten Island Ferry, aboard which Ray Charles gave a concert.

One of the major innovations introduced by George Wein—an energetic organizer with many festivals and concerts to his credit—was to expand the role of corporate sponsorship. Wein was the first to offer sponsors naming rights to concerts and thus, in 1981, the Newport Jazz Festival became the Kool Jazz Festival when Kool Cigarettes took over sponsorship. In 1986, JVC Electronics became the sponsor, and the festival name changed again to the JVC Jazz Festival. The festival also began to broaden its approach to music and to include performers more representative of rhythm and blues or soul than pure jazz. This approach brought popular stars such as Aretha Franklin and Patti Labelle to the festival's stage.

Tapping into a new and exciting movement in American folk music, the Newport Folk Festival debuted in 1959 with such soon-tobe famous stars as Joan Baez, who arrived in a converted hearse for her performance. The festival was a perennial draw for the left-over bohemians of the 1950s as well as for the hippies of the 1960s, many of them musical purists who booed Bob Dylan at the 1965 festival for playing an electric guitar. In 1967, Arlo Guthrie introduced his famous song, "Alice's Restaurant," at the Newport Folk Festival. By 1969, however, the increasing popularity of rock music and the volatile political times brought about the end of the festival, and there was no major folk music venue in Newport for over 15 years. Then, in 1985, George Wein, continuing to do what he did best, brought the folk festival back to Newport. His reunion of old time festival mainstays such as Baez, Guthrie, Judy Collins, and Doc Watson, brought in crowds of over five thousand fans each day. Continuing his tradition of sponsor partnership, he initiated the annual Ben and Jerry's Newport Folk Festival, adroitly tying together the festival and the New England counterculture image of the Vermont ice creamery.

The 1990s initiated its own take on festival culture with the touring music festival, which saw the likes of Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair take to the road, and in 1998 the Newport Folk Festival Tour was launched. The tour showcased long-time "folkies" like Joan Baez, along with newer voices in American folk-rock-country such as Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss, and Suzanne Vega, thus ensuring itself a wide and ongoing following.

Meanwhile, in 1991, an older and perhaps wiser Newport Jazz Festival returned home to Rhode Island, but never again would it be limited to New England. Still a mainstay of the New York summer, the festival has spawned a series of JVC Newport Jazz Festivals across the United States and in many places abroad, as well as Newport Jazz Cruises between festivals. Though challenged from its inception by alternative festivals, Newport has survived to become the granddaddy of them all.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

"After Sixteen Years, Folk Music Triumphs Again in Newport."

People. August 26, 1985, 84.

Agostinelli, Anthony J. The Newport Jazz Festival, Rhode Island, 1954-1971: A Significant Era in the Development of Jazz. Providence, Rhode Island, Agostinelli, 1978.

Goldblatt, Burt. Newport Jazz Festival: The Illustrated History. New York, Dial Press, 1977.