In 1954, Newport, Rhode Island hosted the “First Annual American Jazz Festival.” It was the first time that live acts travelled and gathered in one place to perform live jazz music for an audience. An estimated 12,000 people packed themselves into the Newport Casino to see the world’s biggest names in jazz of the day: Dizzy Gillespie, Teddy Wilson, Stan Kenton, Gene Krupa, Lester Young, and Billie Holiday to name a few.
For over three decades, the Newport Jazz Festival featured new and tenured jazz musicians who all came together for once-in-a-lifetime performances. From the very start in 1954, the festival set itself up for meetings and performances that impacted the jazz world. During Billie Holiday’s performance, Lester Young walked onstage and joined her. Their performance ended years of estrangement between them, and brought many in the audience to joyful tears.
Although billed as the first American ‘jazz’ festival, it stands out today as it was the first ever American music festival. Newport occured fifteen years before the first Woodstock, and drew a bigger crowd than the first Coachella, Glastonbury, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo. It set the stage for all future music festivals and epitomized the spirit of music and performance.
The Rise of a Festival
The story is simple: crowds flocked by the thousands to sit on a lawn in Newport, Rhode Island, and listen to some of the world’s best musicians come together around jazz. After the first year on the casino lawn, the festival sought larger outdoor venues, settling upon Freebody Park for a majority of the first decade of performances.
The third annual festival put Newport on the map. Crowds watched as Paul Gonsalves began soloing over “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” backed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He would continue to solo for 27 choruses, transforming the audience from peacefully seated spectators to wild and crazed dancers. The effort is credited for revitalizing Ellington’s career, and made the Newport Jazz Festival an annual destination.
The festival grew in popularity with each passing year. A documentary of the festival was filmed in 1958, and in 1960, a few musicians staged a separate festival mere blocks away, angry at not being offered a high-paying slot. In 1965, Frank Sinatra entered by helicopter and performed with the Count Basie Orchestra. In 1970, the entire festival was dedicated to Louis Armstrong’s 70th birthday. The legendary jazz pioneer made an appearance, singing and performing with other acts.
Every year, the venues were pushed to the limit of what they could handle. All of the energy, excitement, and emotion began to create problems for the municipalities and government of Rhode Island. Starting in 1969, crowds became too out of control for any of the venues in Newport to properly handle. By 1971, extreme fans were storming the stages and destroyed equipment. Unable to continue forward, the festival left Newport in search of a new home.
Newport Jazz in New York
The following year, 1972, saw Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and 59 other big-name musicians playing over 30 concerts at Yankee Stadium and Radio City Music Hall, among other venues. The outdoor, jazz festival environment fused with the adrenaline laced pulse of the big city. And it continued to grow.
Throughout the 70s, the Newport Jazz Festival would become a title attached to festivals held everywhere from New York, to New England, to Japan. Corporate sponsors began lending financial weight to expansions and improvements of the annual festivals. By 1973 the festival had expanded to Carnegie Hall, where Ella Fitzgerald gave on of the more famous performances of the history of the festival.
Yet festival producer George Wein began to feel that festival had lost some of the classic magic of the outdoor venue. Though expanding and successful, the festival began to lose the focus on music. Wein felt that this was symbolized in the use of ‘Newport Jazz’ as a brand, and decided to protect the legacy of the festival.
The Return to Newport & The Future
The festival moved back to Newport, Rhode Island in 1981, where it remains today. Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie returned for the third evolution of the festival, and other prominent musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, Ray Charles, Diana Krall, and Harry Connick Jr. have made multiple appearances.
Wein retired from directing the festival and passed the torch to Christian McBride, an extremely talented bassist and big band bandleader. Today, the festival remains a balance of tradition and innovation, resisting labelling and branding, and maintaining its roots as a purely improvised and expressive performance art show.