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.