THE EARLY YEARS
1954 – The First Jazz Festival
History has endowed the First Annual American Jazz Festival, as it was then called, with a significance that often eclipses the details of the event itself. With a concert narration penned by critic Nat Hentoff, an academic panel on “The Meaning of Jazz,” and the rarified setting of Newport’s famed Tennis Casino, the festival successfully made the case for jazz as a legitimate art form. Artists included Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hackett, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and the elusive Lennie Tristano. Photo: Billie Holiday
1955 – Miles Davis' Debut
Glamour arrived in Newport’s second year. More specifically, Madison Avenue trend-setters recognized jazz’s advances on the summer playground of America’s upper class. (The wealthy residents of Newport responded with far more ambivalence, attempting unsuccessfully to uproot the festival from their gilded turf.) Artist included Count Basie Orchestra, Woody Herman Orchestra, Dave Brubeck, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong All Stars, and another group of all-stars — featuring Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis, among others — was responsible for the rendition of “‘Round Midnight” that launched the second phase of Davis’ career.
1956 – Duke Ellington is Born in Newport
If this Newport Jazz Festival had yielded only “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” its place in jazz lore would be assured. The epochal Duke Ellington Orchestra performance was just one of many highlights, but in the end it was Columbia’s best-selling LP Ellington at Newport that immortalized this festival for all time. The Maestro would pay homage to the occasion with a famous quip: “I was born at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956.”
1957 – Gospel Makes it's First Stand
At the behest of festival board member John Hammond, gospel music made its first stand at Newport on a sunny Sunday afternoon. A mostly white audience, many of whom had never seen a gospel choir, listened to the powerful sounds of the Drinkard Singers, the Clara Ward Singers, the Back Home Choir, and the majestic Mahalia Jackson, who earned a standing ovation.
1958 – Jazz on a Summer's Day
The 1958 Newport Jazz Festival has been revisited through the lens of Bert Stern, who shot much of the action in his documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day.” The film, co-directed and edited by Aram Avakian with musical direction by George Avakian, forever preserved performances by Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Chico Hamilton, Louis Armstrong, and Mahalia Jackson. It also captured the first festival forays of rhythm and blues (Big Maybelle) and rock ‘n’ roll (Chuck Berry).
1959 – The Festival Swells to Epic Proportions
A creature of steady growth since its inception, the festival swelled to epic proportions in ’59, with an estimated 60,000 attending over four days. Artists included Erroll Garner Trio, Duke Ellington Orchestra, Ahmad Jamal, Kenny Burrell, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
1960 – Rebels & Riots
From the start, Newport ’60 was a thing of turbulence. Charles Mingus, disgruntled at not being included on the festival, staged a “Rebel Festival” across town. Meanwhile, another kind of turbulence was brewing outside Freebody Park, as hundreds of beer-swilling party-goers clashed with local police. When the fracas became dangerous, town authorities ordered not only the dispersal of the rioting crowd but also the termination of the festival. A Sunday afternoon blues concert was allowed to go on as planned, and so Newport saw first-time appearances by Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Otis Spann, reading a spur-of-the-moment lyric by Langston Hughes, closed the festival with an elegy: “It’s a gloomy day at Newport, / It’s a gloomy, gloomy day. / It’s a gloomy day at Newport, / The music’s going away.”
1962 – Newport Jazz Returns
Following the one-year hiatus resulting of the rioting in 1960, the festival return. The festival featured Charles Mingus, whose rebel festival had sounded a note of dissent two years prior. Other artists included Sonny Rollins, the Max Roach Freedom Choir, the Clara Ward Singers, and an up-and-coming singer named Aretha Franklin.
1963 – Old & New Commingled
This festival, saw Pee Wee Russell joining the Thelonious Monk Quartet, Coleman Hawkins locking horns with Sonny Rollins, and Clark Terry playing an impromptu blues with McCoy Tyner. Dizzy Gillespie was reunited with his old sparring partner Milt Jackson; more significantly, Cootie Williams was reunited with Duke Ellington. For many, however, the standout performance of the festival was the John Coltrane Quartet, with drummer Roy Haynes standing in for an errant Elvin Jones.
1964 – Great Moments & New Faces
Newport ’64 began with “Great Moments in Jazz,” a smart bit of programming that had traditional jazz musicians — Bobby Haggart, George Brunies, Wingy Manone — revisiting their old signature songs. At the other end of the style spectrum was “New Faces in Jazz,” an afternoon program featuring the likes of composer George Russell and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Stan Getz took the stage with Astrud Gilberto, delivering a dose of chart-topping bossa nova bliss. Social protest stepped to the forefront, too, as Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln performed their powerful “Freedom Now!”
1965 – Frank Sinatra By Helicopter
Frank Sinatra made his only Newport appearance this year, arriving in a private helicopter and performing with the Count Basie Orchestra, to a record-breaking crowd. Earl “Fatha” Hines played Newport for the first time, as did Abdullah Ibrahim.
1966 – Coltrane’s Farewell
This year’s jazz festival leaned toward the modern end of the spectrum, with everyone from Charles Lloyd and Bill Dixon to the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. During a Woody Herman Orchestra reunion, three of the famous “Four Brothers” were on hand — and a surprise guest appeared in the form of Tony Bennett. Miles Davis appeared with his quintet, and John Coltrane showcased a new group featuring his wife Alice and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. The 1966 festival was John Coltrane’s last performance.
1967 – Schlitz Salute to Jazz
Corporate sponsorship entered the picture this year, as the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company underwrote a “Schlitz Salute to Jazz.” Taking place on the festival’s opening night, this program presented a capsule history of the music, from African percussionist Michael Olatunji to stride pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, and all the way up to “New Thing” saxophonist Albert Ayler.
1968 – Beyond Newport
By 1968, the footprint Newport Jazz stretched well beyond Rhode Island — in the form of a 21-city Schlitz Salute to Jazz tour, a Hampton Jazz Festival, and the thriving Ohio Valley Jazz Festival, among other ventures. Back at Newport, festival highlights included a Schlitz Salute to Big Bands, with orchestras led by Count Basie, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie; crossover performances by Dionne Warwick and Ray Charles; and festival debuts by Mongo Santamaria, Tal Farlow and South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela.
1969 – The Rock Invasion
Rock invaded Newport in ’69, yielding what probably still stands as one of the most incongruously eclectic musical presentations of all time. A tumultuous performance by Sly and the Family Stone segued into a set by the likes of Bud Freeman and Bob Wilber. John Mayall went on after Miles Davis, and Led Zeppelin followed Buddy Rich. Other rock acts included Ten Years After, Jeff Beck, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Frank Zappa, and Jethro Tull. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, presided over his own sizzling afternoon show. City Council later banned rock from future shows.
1970 – Louis Armstrong’s 70th Birthday
Louis Armstrong had made many appearances at Newport over the years, but none as imaginatively programmed as his 70th birthday concert. Artists included Preservation Hall Jazz Band, New Orleans Classic Ragtime Band, Eureka Brass Band, Bobby Hackett, Wild Bill Davison, and Dizzy Gillespie. Armstrong himself didn’t play, due to health concerns. But he sang, both alone and with Mahalia Jackson, who brought the night to a climax with an incredible rendition of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”
1971 – The End of the Early Years
Trouble began brewing in Newport well before a note sounded on the festival stage. Thousands of young people had gathered on the hillside overlooking Festival Field, creating a makeshift campground through which they wandered in psychedelic haze. There was only one rock act at Newport this year, The Allman Brothers — and their booking had predated their phenomenal success. Pouring into Festival Field like an invading ant colony, they tore the lid off the piano, destroyed some other onstage equipment, and wreaked general havoc. Thus ended the second incarnation of the Newport Jazz Festival — senselessly, with both a bang and a whimper.
1972 – Newport in New York
Although Newport may have been on hiatus in its namesake city, the Newport Jazz Festival name continued to grow in global notoriety and was brought to many new stages. In 1972 George Wein brought the festival to New York City, which was lacking in summer concert events during that era, and the Newport Jazz Festival-New York was born. Concert venues included Yankee Stadium, Carnegie Hall and midnight jam sessions at Radio City Music Hall. Artists on that first year’s lineup included Ray Charles, Roberta Flack and Dave Brubeck, laying a metropolitan template for the festival.
1973 – Boston Jazz Festival
Inspired by the success of the Newport Jazz Festival-New York, New England was able to partake in the citified version of the festival as well, when concerts were held at Boston’s Fenway Park and dubbed the ‘Newport New England Jazz Festival – an official production of the Newport Jazz Festival. Artists included War, Ray Charles, Herbie Mann, the Staple Singers, and Billy Paul. Saturday: Donny Hathaway, B.B. King, Freddie Hubbard, Charles Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Stevie Wonder.
1978 – Saratoga Jazz Festival
With the urban successes of the expansion of the Newport Jazz Festival brand, Wein felt the outdoor festival setting calling once again and sites were set on bring the Newport name to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in pastoral Saratoga Springs, New York. The New York City counterpart continued, as did a number of global festival brand expansions across Europe and Japan. Financial commitments from companies such as Schlitz and Kool also set pioneering precedents for corporate concert sponsorship during this era.
1978 – Celebration at the White House
To celebrate the 25th year of Newport, a concert was held on the South Lawn of The White House. President Jimmy Carter had just returned from Panama on the morning of Sunday, June 18th, but by the afternoon a concert was in full-swing and President Carter was personally greeting each musician. The evening concluded by Carter extending the concert curfew and stating “I don’t believe the White House has ever seen anything like this…this music is as much a part of the greatness of this nation as the White House of the Capitol down the way.”
BACK IN NEWPORT
1981 – The Return Home
The start of a new decade saw the Newport Jazz Festival return to its hometown. With its legacy re-planted in The Ocean State, Festival Field was eschewed in favor of Fort Adams State Park, a historic stone fortification situated picturesquely on Narragansett Bay. Daytime concerts became the focus of the festival, which received renewed enthusiasm from locals and tourists alike.
1993 – 40th Anniversary
On the 40th Anniversary of the festival the Newport Jazz flag was once again planted on the White House lawn. President Bill Clinton, an avowed jazz fan and saxophone player, said of Newport, “It’s especially appropriate that we should be here at America’s house to celebrate the most American of all forms of music expression… No event has done more to nurture the careers of jazz artists; none has done more to thrill and delight jazz fans. The festival’s influence has been truly profound…”
2004 – 50th Anniversary
Celebrating a landmark 50th anniversary, the Newport Jazz Festival marked the event in style with a Gala evening at The Breakers, featuring Dave Brubeck, Jamie Cullum and others.
2007 – A New Venture
The beginning of the year saw George Wein sell his company Festival Productions, which at the time produced 11 festivals world-wide modeled after Newport, to new investors, forming a new venture titled Festival Network, LLC. The new company ambitiously launched festivals in Martha’s Vineyard, San Francisco, Jackson Hole and Mali; plus a partnership was established with the Olympics, which yielded the conception of the Festival of Champions in Vancouver, London and Sochi.
2009 – Jazz Festival 55
George Wein reclaimed the reigns of the Newport festivals, and the Jazz festival goes under the banner of George Wein’s Jazz Festival 55. The festival is highlighted by a range of performers, from Tony Bennett to Mos Def.
2010 – Newport Festivals Foundation
The Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival get back to their nonprofit roots with the formation of Newport Festivals Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization. The Foundation serves to maintain the Jazz and Folk festivals in perpetuity, while establishing educational initiatives and programs for young students and musicians.
2014 – 60th Anniversary
Newport Jazz celebrates its 60th Anniversary and for the first year ever, a full third day of festival programming takes place at Fort Adams State Park. The new Friday program focuses on presenting emerging artists. Other special concerts took place on this day as well, such as John Zorn’s Masada Marathon, which included nine different groups under Zorn’s creative direction. The all-star Newport Now 60 Band also took the stage at Newport and went on to tour nationally, celebrating the festival’s anniversary across the country.
2015 – Artistic Programming Fund
The first year of presenting commissioned musical works made possible by the support of the George Wein/Doris Duke Artistic Programming Fund. The fund was created in partnership with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to support the presenting of emerging artists and new works at the festival.