Who's Thinking About Retirement?
From left, Bobby Hackett, Louis Armstrong and George Wein at the festival in 1970Associated Press
This weekend, the Newport Jazz Festival turns 60. Even though Newport inspired thousands of other festivals, both jazz and otherwise, around the world (some produced by Newport's founder, George Wein), it remains a unique event in the cultural landscape: Newport is at once the grandfather of all large-scale outdoor music festivals and the unchallenged epicenter of the jazz world—the equivalent of South by Southwest, Ted Talks, Sundance and Burning Man all rolled into a single weekend.
Before Mr. Wein produced the first Newport festival 60 years ago, there had been a tradition of classical music in large open-air concert spaces, such as Lewisohn Stadium in New York and the Hollywood Bowl. As far as the Toscaninis and the Stokowskis were concerned, these occasional al fresco presentations were decidedly populist, an attempt to reach the larger audience that didn't regularly attend concerts at the Metropolitan Opera House or Carnegie Hall. When Mr. Wein made the then-radical decision to do the same thing for jazz, he was coming from the opposite direction, helping the music to reach upward from the lower rungs of American culture to the loftier realms of opera and the symphony.
Newport Jazz Festival
Aug. 1 through Aug. 3
In 1954, jazz was still a curio in the formal concert halls. Only such overwhelming icons as Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong had been invited to play Carnegie, and even then very rarely. In New York, the best that a well-known big band leader or star singer could do was to play the more upscale jazz clubs like Birdland or Basin Street East (jazz was never welcome at the really prestigious night spots like the Persian Room or the Copacabana). For the most part, the major soloists of the swing and bebop era were playing in what could be charitably called "dives"—places you wouldn't dream of bringing your wife or even the better class of mistress. Back in New Orleans, jazz had been heard in the dance halls, both the comparatively respectable ones and the rough-and-tumble "buckets of blood" of the Storyville red-light district. With the coming of Prohibition, small-group instrumental jazz was largely forced underground into the speakeasies—a move that cemented its status as a form of vice (you didn't hear Beethoven in a joint that served bootleg hooch in teacups). That louche reputation still lingered two decades after Prohibition's end, when Mr. Wein launched Newport.
Yet, in another sense, Mr. Wein was also reconnecting the music to its very beginnings, in that the outdoorsy, weekend-afternoon presentation was also part of jazz's early history. As the 19th century became the 20th, jazz was as much a product of the parade and picnic grounds, where the brass bands marched, as it was of the sporting house, where pianists like Jelly Roll Morton held forth. Middle-class families of all races would head from church to the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, listening to early rags mixed in with marches by John Philip Sousa as the band played on.
Mr. Wein, with the support of his wealthy Newport patrons Elaine and Louis Lorillard, launched the first major American jazz festival at precisely the right time. Jazz never needed a shot of respectability more than it did in the mid-1950s—when virtually the only time it was mentioned in the mainstream papers was when a major figure like Charlie Parker died of drug-related causes.
And even while strengthening jazz's ties to its own past, Mr. Wein was laying the groundwork for the future. The establishment of a network of festivals, especially overseas, has been essential to the long-term survival of the music. Up until Newport, summer had generally been a dead season for concert halls and theaters alike—who wanted to sit in a 90-degree concert hall listening to Schubert? (To a vast extent, the spread of the summer festival was technologically empowered by the advent of air conditioning.) Six decades later, the warm months are the busiest time of the year for working jazz musicians, most of whom are continually on the road between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The implications of Mr. Wein's festivals spread far beyond jazz: He himself started a parallel festival for folk music in 1959, and at a certain point began including big-name pop acts in the jazz event. Mr. Wein deserves to be credited as the inadvertent father of the entire era of Woodstock and sports-arena rock concerts—but he'd probably demand a blood test if you called him that to his face.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Mr. Wein's success is the speed by which Newport became the central event in the jazz world—by the second year, it had a reputation as the nebula where stars were born. Miles Davis owed much of his career to his transcendent showing in 1955, and, for the rest of his life, Duke Ellington consistently said that he had been "born at Newport in 1956," after his triumphant performance in which tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves played 27 solo choruses on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," firing up the audience so much that it nearly caused a riot. The appearance also announced to the world the end of Ellington's comparatively fallow period in the early 1950s and the start of his comeback. In 1960, Mr. Wein was probably the most influential figure in the entire world of jazz; during the CD boom of the '80s and '90s, the balance of power shifted to major label gurus like Blue Note's Bruce Lundvall, but with the record industry currently in a state of free fall, the upscale presenters like Newport and Jazz at Lincoln Center are once again the dominant figures.
For the past 60 years, no institution has done more to help establish jazz as a legitimate art form than Newport and the notion of the jazz festival that Mr. Wein created. Where jazz once rubbed shoulders with pop stars like Frank Sinatra, it now competes for government and corporate funding with opera and chamber music. Indeed, the biggest issue confronting jazz in its second century is the need to regain the popular following that it once took for granted. If the Newport Jazz Festival were a person, it would be thinking about retirement, but even though jazz itself is by now well over a century old, it's still young enough, fresh enough and vital enough to be more than ready for challenges precisely like this one.
Mr. Friedwald writes the weekly Jazz Scene column for the Journal.