[JPL] 50 Years Later, Newport Swings With 'Real Jazz'

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Wed Aug 18 14:34:28 EDT 2004

50 Years Later, Newport Swings With 'Real Jazz'

August 17, 2004

NEWPORT, R.I., Aug. 16 - During its early years, starting
in 1954, the Newport Jazz Festival was post-beat and
pre-hippie. The music was probably at its greatest high,
but its reach and status in American society and the
marketplace hadn't been properly gauged. The words classic,
smooth, brunch and cruise were yet to be hooked up to it. 

The first Newports must have been easy to program. Nearly
everyone who played jazz since the music's beginning was
living then, and the greater subset of that group was
performing beautifully. And so the American jazz festival
was an original but inevitable concept, at least for
America; one of its founders, George Wein, had in mind
Tanglewood and Salzburg. 

The symbolic battle, all those years ago, was to make the
world outside its own cabal take jazz seriously. This could
more easily happen, it was decided, in a wealthy place that
forced a certain kind of attention from social elites and
the media. The jazz record producer and entrepreneur John
Hammond, at a directors' meeting for the festival in 1955,
summed up the paradox. His mother was a Vanderbilt, and he
didn't share the family's presentiments. "We have no
particular love for Newport," he said. "Yet in one sense of
the word we have brought democracy to Newport, which was
the last place in the world where it could have been
expected to be found in America." 

Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Lester Young, Lennie
Tristano and Billie Holiday, among others, played in 1954;
over the next few years, documenters in print and film
started to turn what were great moments into much bigger
American landmarks. 

Fifty years later the Newport festival - it is now called
the JVC Jazz Festival-Newport - celebrated itself from
Friday to Sunday in Fort Adams State Park on Newport
Harbor. It could be argued that jazz, in one form or
another, has been as much accepted in social and commercial
life as it ever will be; the only issues left are aesthetic
ones. This year Mr. Wein decided to leach the smooth jazz
and pop from the festival and present what he thinks of as
"real jazz." The festival wasn't going to put on makeup

With age comes deeper self-reflection. The Lincoln Center
Jazz Orchestra -minus Wynton Marsalis, sidelined with a lip
injury - played a version of "Dimenuendo and Crescendo in
Blue" on Sunday evening. It's a piece that Duke Ellington's
orchestra played, rather famously, in the 1956 festival.
This time, James Carter performed as star saxophone
soloist, filling the role of Paul Gonsalves from that day
in 1956. Mr. Carter, in a purple suit, played a solo 31
choruses long, growing frenetic and gnashing and outdoing
Gonsalves's 28. As a blond woman in the audience
spontaneously (and thereafter, famously) began dancing
through the solo all those years ago, stirring up more and
more of the crowd, another blond woman began to dance near
the stage in 2004, and the history-minded in the front
began to roar again, perhaps a little less spontaneously. 

This was only the second Newport festival that Mr. Wein,
78, couldn't attend. (It ran from 1954 to 1960, missed
1961, re-upped from 1962 to 1971, moved to Manhattan as the
Newport Jazz Festival-New York, then began again, combining
jazz with blues, R&B and pop, in 1981.) He had to have an
operation for scar-tissue blockage in his small intestine a
week before. Though he made it to a pre-festival gala at
the Breakers, the Vanderbilt mansion here, he returned home
to New York for the weekend on doctor's orders. 

What he did in booking the 50th anniversary of Newport
isn't to be taken lightly: he looked at the business he
helped nurture and used aesthetic judgments to clean the
gunk out of it. One suspects that few minded. Smooth jazz
fans don't dislike real jazz; that animosity only goes the
other way. (Anyway, smooth jazz has its own festivals;
there's one this weekend at Rumsey Playfield in Central
Park.) The same middle-aged New England summer crowd came,
as well as a lot more critics, and some younger
college-radio types attuned to the Sunday night finale of
Ornette Coleman and the Wayne Shorter-Herbie Hancock-Dave
Holland-Brian Blade band. 

Ticket sales seemed to support Mr. Wein's decision. The
festival nearly sold out on Saturday, which means filling
the 10,000 legal limit of Fort Adams State Park. Sunday's
program was better, but a dire weather forecast - the
festival narrowly avoided the storm path - limited the
ticket sales to a little over 5,000. (Friday night's
warm-up show by Harry Connick Jr. at the Newport Casino
grounds was nearly drowned in rain.) 

There were three areas for the 36 weekend performances in
the park: a main stage, an alternate stage and, for the
first time, a solo-piano stage, generally packed. The two
complete sets I heard there, Mulgrew Miller's and Jason
Moran's, were as good as anything all weekend. Mr. Miller's
playing is a kind of perfection of the traditional postwar
jazz language, and hearing it alone makes the point even
stronger; there are no extreme gestures in dynamics,
arrangement or repertory. It's like meditation with
fantastic swing rhythm. 

Mr. Moran's set went the other way, with lots of
conceptualizing and no bebop. (He favors early stride-piano
at the moment.) He played "Straight Outta Istanbul," a
transcription of a woman speaking in Turkish, which he
played over the tape recording of the woman - including the
melodic beeping of her cellphone, also transcribed. Then he
moved to a New Orleans rhythm for the next song, starting
out clean, bringing forth a melody from it and making the
rhythm bleed into dense tone clusters. 

There were many history lessons on the main stage. Chico
Hamilton, in his early 80's now, gave little demonstrations
on the history of swing drumming in a solo performance.
Dave Brubeck, with his quartet, played the sort of thing
that made him famous in the 50's. An ad-hoc quartet paid
tribute to John Coltrane, with McCoy Tyner, Michael
Brecker, Ravi Coltrane, Christian McBride and Roy Haynes;
I've seen dozens of performances trying the same thing, but
few so good. An orchestra led by the trumpeter Jon Faddis
played a strong set of music by Gillespie, Parker, Basie
and Goodman. (As a rule, big bands went down perfectly in
this setting.) Barry Harris led a set of Thelonious Monk
music at the beginning of the festival, while the pianist
Cedar Walton and others redid the music of Art Blakey's
Jazz Messengers. 

On the second stage Lee Konitz, who played in the first
festival 50 years ago, teamed up with Roy Hargrove, with
unspectacular results; Ravi Coltrane played a hard-driving
set; Dave Douglas presented a quartet called "Vacation
Blues," with the trombonist Roswell Rudd, playing Herbie
Nichols music and some originals; and Mr. Connick came back
to play his instrumental music, tight and percussive and
serious, with a quartet including the drummer Jeff Watts.
Percy Heath, the only other 50-year veteran of the
festival, performed a typically lovely, easygoing set with
the Heath Brothers. 

Mr. Coleman's new quartet, with the two bassists Tony
Falanga and Greg Cohen and Denardo Coleman on drums, blazed
with a power and urgency they had scaled back in the more
acoustically challenged Carnegie Hall in June. The set of
new material confidently sailed by, with a time-stopping
"Lonely Woman" as a closer. And the Hancock-Shorter group
improved on its performance in New York earlier this
summer, too. If that show contained more wild, bleeding
moments, particularly from Mr. Shorter, this one had no
slackness; it felt like a working band, and the way the
musicians shifted around freely through vamps and pieces
from their past, shoring each other up with rhythm and
melody, was a lesson in group communication. 

Both final groups made music of complicated, flowing
coordination, with growing and receding dynamics, as if the
songs were living organisms. Jazz will continue being proud
of its achievements, and rightfully so, but these wriggling
performances, battling against self-consciousness, were
just the right balance against the weight of history. 



Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
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