Festivals of Riches Gone By

It was so much easier to put on a noteworthy jazz festival in the past. In 1958, when George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival had taken off, one of the world’s great impresarios had the option to present nearly the entire history of this still-young music.

The bright and vital lineage of the trumpet, from Louis Armstrong through Roy Eldridge through Dizzy Gillespie through Miles Davis, could be put on display. The greatest jazz composer and big bandleader, Duke Ellington was fully in charge again, having roared back into the eyes and the ears of the world at Newport in 1956, reinvigorating a popularity that had flagged greatly and threatened to end that phase of his life in show business. One of Ellington’s mentors, Willie “The Lion” Smith, a sequoia of the Harlem stride school, was also available to thump and tickle the keys, replete with derby hat, prominent glasses, natty suit and thick cigar. Count Basie and his crew could put their special Kansas City burn on the beat, and Joe Williams, big and black and barely coordinated, could sing some blues about what it felt like to be alone at some early morning hour with one’s mind on a love too complicated to explain in any other way than through trying to make notes reach the expressive level of sighs.

When the talent pool was deep, any tenor saxophonist from Coleman Hawkins and Bud Freeman to Ben Webster and Budd Johnson all the way up to Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane was available, afternoon or night. They were there as flesh and blood beings in the world, ready to come up on the bandstand and let everyone know how many ways that tenor could tell an audience what it meant to be an aristocrat, a sore-headed bear, a romantic shot through the chest with a blues arrow, an eccentric, a wit, a poonsman, a prankster full of charismatic melody, harmony, and rhythm, an extender of the instrument’s technical vocabulary or just somebody swinging so hard that an audience was transformed into one enormous foot patting the ground with affection and excitement.

Billie Holiday, that virtuoso of rhythm, texture, and nuance, was available to shock an audience into silence with her revelations about love and loneliness and heartbreak and all that it took to get out of bed every morning and meet the blues that had been assigned to birddog your soul by the day. Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, each vastly different examples of virtuosity, blended either operatic gifts or purely jazz command for that special majesty the greatest singers have, that particular gift for blowing up the heart of an audience as if it is a balloon slowly filling with a golden mist of aesthetic helium.

The great sweep of rhythmic conceptions heard from drummers such as Papa Jo Jones, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, and Elvin Jones, each of whom added something very special to the playing of that instrument, were ready for action at Newport in the bodies of the men who had invented them. Bassists from Pops Foster to Milt Hinton to Ray Brown to Percy Heath to Charles Mingus to Paul Chambers were available to make clear how the bottom register had been redefined—slapped, plucked, and strummed—for homemade American art music.

Sure, Wein sponsored his share of noisy drum battles and sometimes put together formless public jam sessions worthy of Norman Granz and Jazz at the Philharmonic. He even had jazz musicians back up Chuck Berry one summer night in 1958, causing the duck-walking rocker to look as nervous as a novice fighter stepping in the ring with Roy Jones Jr. But when the musician riches were deep, Wein mostly presented bands or specially commissioned works or grand reunions that usually fired the imagination. This also happened out on the West Coast at the Monterey Jazz Festival and various other spots around the world.

But things are quite different today. The musicians are dying off, as we all will. The fusion period deprived us of all of the young jazz musicians who would, by now, be either stars or close to it if they had been able to develop under the prefusion Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter. Such a dire effect was not intended, but that is how it happened, which is why there is such an age gap between the generation represented by Hubbard and the one in which Wynton Marsalis is presently the biggest star.

And today, like the Chuck Berry episode gone wild, one does not necessarily expect to hear jazz at a jazz festival. One might hear anything today. Brazilian music. African music. Indian music. Middle Eastern music. Improvised 20th century concert avant-garde music masquerading as jazz. Rock. Rhythm and blues. Who knows?

Some will say that breaking down those barriers is good for jazz, that it opens it up to new audiences. I only wonder one thing about that: Have things ever gotten so open at festivals of Brazilian music or African music or Indian music or contemporary avant-garde concert music or Middle Eastern music that they’ve decided to present Nicholas Payton or Kenny Barron or Elvin Jones or Cedar Walton or anybody else who is, without a doubt, a jazz musician?

Though it has only been 44 years, 1958 seems like a long, long time ago.

Originally published in May 2002

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