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The Boston Phoenix Newport Notes

How the Jazz and Folk Festivals made history

By Ted Drozdowski

AUGUST 9, 1999:  "Well, this is real bullshit!" yelled Eddie Condon.

The feisty guitarist, banjo player, and vocalist was snared in a long line of cars. It was July 17, 1954, and Condon was sharing a bus with clarinettist Pee Wee Russell, the Modern Jazz Quartet, members of Dizzy Gillespie's band, cornettist Wild Bill Davison, and other veterans of numerous jams -- traffic and otherwise. Yet this was different. What raised Condon's ire was the fact that he and his cronies were scheduled to open the first Newport Jazz Festival shortly. And since their bus from New York had left an hour late -- after waiting for three musicians who'd stepped into a bar for a beer -- they'd gotten stuck in the line for the ferry that traveled between Jamestown and Newport, Rhode Island, in the years before a bridge was erected.

Troubling enough with curtain time creeping closer. But the clincher was the ferryman who refused to let the bus skip ahead -- even after he'd been told by the musicians aboard that "all those cats in front are waiting to hear us."

Finally, Condon left the bus to call Louis Lorillard, the cigarette-money heir who was underwriting the festival. "Well, it looks like there's going to be some new attendants on the ferry," Condon crowed as he returned. And indeed, they were put on the next boat. Lorillard had called the city manager, who also had a police escort awaiting the bus in Newport. The first sound heard by festival goers at the grand old Casino downtown was sirens, followed by the arrival of the disgruntled musicians.

So began the history of the Newport Jazz Festival, known currently as "The JVC Jazz Festival -- Newport." Forty-five years later, events like the Montreaux Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and England's Castle Donnington rock show, as well as traveling packages like Lilith Fair and Lollapalooza and OzFest, have become part of the cultural landscape. But in 1954 Newport Jazz -- which unreels this year on August 13, 14 and 15 -- and then in 1959 the Newport Folk Festival -- now sponsored by Ben & Jerry's and playing this Friday, Saturday and Sunday -- were international news, novel assemblages that launched the concept of the music festival as we've come to know it.

Some purists might point to the sprawling 1953 concert featuring Louis Armstrong and Stan Kenton in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, as the first jazz festival, or to events like the great talent scout John Hammond's "From Spirituals to Swing" series at Carnegie Hall, or even bandleader Kenton's traveling West Coast package tours of the early '50s. But for its size, duration, packaging, its high level of talent, and even its kind-of corporate sponsorship (thanks to the financing of Newport cigarette family the Lorillards in the festival's early years), it is Newport Jazz that walked the walk, talked the talk.

Newport Jazz also solidified the career of its producer, George Wein, whose New York City-based Festival Productions today stages more than a thousand music events internationally each year (including New Orleans's famed Jazz & Heritage Fest each spring). Wein, a gregarious gent who was born in Boston in 1925, was running Beantown's famed Storyville Club when Lorillard approached him about "doing something with jazz in Newport, to liven up the summer."

"We used to close Storyville in the summer, because there was no business," Wein recounts. "We'd find places on the Cape or in Gloucester to do a summer Storyville, so I thought, since there was a successful classical series at Tanglewood over the summer, why not a summer jazz festival?

"I knew all the artists that were popular in New England because they worked for me at the club. I knew who'd draw people, I knew all the fans because jazz was a pretty tight community at the time. I figured if I put a show together with enough of the right musicians, people would go to Newport to see them . . . and they did."

The right musicians were Eddie Condon's traditional jazz band (which included Russell and Davison), vocalist Lee Wiley, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Oscar Peterson's trio, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie's quintet, Gerry Mulligan's quartet, Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Jo Jones, Teddy Wilson, Johnnie Smith, Bill Harris, George Shearing's quintet, Errol Garner's trio, Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, Gene Krupa's trio, Ella Fitzgerald, and Stan Kenton as master of ceremonies. They played on Saturday and Sunday evening in '54, and Friday night was added the following year -- after accolades for the festival appeared in the press.

The early Newport Jazz Festivals ushered in a renaissance for the music, which had lost its mainstream popularity as the big swing bands faded in the 1940s. "When we started, with the occasional exception of maybe Stan Kenton, those artists didn't work casinos or concert halls," says Wein. "They only worked nightclubs, mostly in a circuit of California, Philly, New York and Boston. The festival built up a whole new world. Festivals became a great public-relations medium for jazz. There were radio broadcasts, and the press picked up on the festival and that jazz was American music in a tremendous surge, which helped every artist, club, everything."

There was also a different type of camaraderie then that's missing from the festival today. Since the jazz audiences of the early through the mid '50s were essentially a cult, they had a spirit of community comparable to that of the young punk-rockers of the '70s: a shared sense of interests and values was expressed via the music. Today the Newport Jazz Festival still plays a part in bringing developing talent to attention, but it's more of a mainstream event. Our media-saturated culture has brought the music of artists like Harry Connick and Branford Marsalis to everyone. And with African-American entertainers now major players in pop, shared goals like destroying racism are now rarely a strong subtext in attending concerts.

The language of jazz has also changed. Jam sessions were an important part of Newport programs through the '60s. Ensembles would spontaneously form and blow off-the-cuff through the changes of standards and improvisations, never knowing exactly where the music would go. Such jamming was part of jazz's backbone, the root of the adventurousness and creativity that provided so much allure for audiences and players. Now it rarely happens at Newport or anywhere else.

"Things were different then," Wein reflects. "All the musicians were brothers and sisters. Whether they were bebop or traditional, they knew the same songs, the same changes. They weren't playing modal, electronic, all different styles. Also, economically it was difficult then for a lot of the stars to hold their own groups together, so you could get Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Max Roach . . . even Thelonious Monk to come to Newport alone, and I'd put them together in jam sessions. I remember Monk playing once with Pee Wee Russell; Monk was far out and Russell was a traditional guy, but they played beautifully together and loved it.

"Now you bring someone in and they say, 'No man, I want to play with my own group.' Every so often you can do it. Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman can do it and they have a ball, so we hope they'll jam this year."

Although many musicians may have been brothers and sisters by the mid '50s, racial lines were still strictly drawn in America. "Newport was quite a Jim Crow town when we went there," Wein says. "We broke that down in two or three years. They even elected a black mayor. I think jazz festivals, by becoming so big and important after Newport, focused attention on integration because of the racial mixing among jazz musicians, which began to reflect itself in society. And the Folk Festival was very involved in the civil-rights fight. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and for the years leading up to it, the music and the people presented at the Folk Festival had real meaning."

"The Newport Folk Festival was a strong influence on civil rights in the Northeast," attests Bob Jones, an affable 62-year-old who's now the promoter of the event. Jones first began working at Newport Folk as a volunteer in 1963. He was lured from his effort to become a folksinger by Wein and Wein's wife, Joyce, whom he first worked for locating housing for artists in Newport. He's also spent decades managing jazz tours by the likes of Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan for the Weins.

"At the early Folk Festivals, we had a group called the Freedom Singers, led by Bernice and Cornell Regon; Bob Dylan; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary -- they were spokespersons for civil rights and leaders in folk music. We also had a mixed, diverse board of advisers for the festival, and an artist policy that drew heavily on African-American culture. Board member Ralph Rinzler and I were the white guys who went traveling through the South looking for black musicians. It was interesting sometimes.

"We were almost thrown in jail in Texas. We went to see this preacher, the Reverend Doc Reese. We were told by the sheriff that because we hadn't registered with him to go see an African-American, we were subject to arrest. [Bluegrass pioneer] Bill Monroe, believe it or not, was our salvation. Ralph was a big adviser to Bill Monroe, and he had lots of Bill's photos and stuff in the car -- which we had to empty out in the middle of the town square. The sheriff saw all this stuff and asked, 'How come you guys know Bill Monroe?' We explained we knew Bill real well. We had a tape player and tapes that he thought were speeches to rile up the community, but we played him one of Monroe. Basically, his contention was, 'If they're friends of Bill Monroe, how bad can they be?' So we were out of there. Shortly after we got back, the board instituted a check-in policy for any of us who went down South. To this day I'm not much of a bluegrass fan, but I have a real fondness for Bill."

In the early years of Newport Folk, Jones heard the first Northern performances of blues giants like Skip James and John Hurt. He traveled the back country of Louisiana to find great Creole musicians like Alphonse "Bois Sec" Ardoin and Canray Fontenot at the direction of Alan Lomax, the famed musicologist who was on the Newport Folk board. But his fondest memory is the "incredible after-festival parties where everybody would jam. I remember one night sitting on the steps to one of the dormitories where the musicians stayed listening to Muddy Waters and Bill Monroe as they sat next to each other and talked about music. It was the kind of thing that hardly happened then and, of course, could never happen now. The festival was the place where many of us finally saw where a lot of the roots of the music of the day came from -- because then the popular music of the day was indeed folk music."

Now the popular music of the day is even more the fare of the festivals, which aim to draw about 15,000 attendees each weekend. That poses problems for Wein and Jones. "Competition changes the booking of the festival," Wein explains, pointing out that he and New England's biggest concert promoter, Don Law, "cooperate." "If we try to play the same artists, we'll try to separate them by six weeks or so, because Law needs every artist that sells a ticket at Newport to sell tickets at BankBoston Pavilion or the Tweeter Center."

Wein also laments the absence of the great traditional jazz artists and innovators who were staples of the festival through earlier decades. Not only as performers, but as lost friends. "Nobody's left," he observes. "Lionel Hampton's 90, he can hardly move. Benny Carter's very sick."

And Newport Folk changed as similar festivals sprang up and become institutions in its wake. "There's a whole range of traditional festivals now, from Canada to Louisiana, so we niched ourselves more into the singer/songwriter category," Jones explains. "But now even the summer sheds put together package bills, so there's a lot of competition in getting and maintaining talent in that category. We have to address that. In the future we may start doing more thematic kinds of concerts, like the 'Keepers of the Flame' this year. And I'm interested in getting back to having more traditional African-American artists, which we drifted away from when had a Rhythm & Blues Festival" -- at Newport from '95, through '97.

Both Wein and Jones have kept their hearty love of music alive across the decades. Yet sometimes the memories are distracting, more alluring than the present. "When I'm listening to a young singer-songwriter sometimes," says Jones, "I think of the many times I stood on stage and heard Sarah Vaughan sing. I need to try to keep my perspective."

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