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Jazz Festival Etiquette: “Keep Your Shirt On Because Newport Is Not Bonnaroo”

JazzTimes editor introduces May 2018 issue with essay on proper jazz festival behavior

Sign at the Newport Jazz Festiavl
A few of the Newport Jazz Festival’s historic figures are remembered on the 2017 festival grounds at Fort Adams State Park.

As I slink toward middle age, I’m finding less enjoyment at concerts, or at least more frustration, and it has nothing to do with the music. I’m not sure we as humans still have the attention span and decency to responsibly take in performances or films. Last fall, at a fantastic set by the Gary Peacock Trio, a strapping young European tourist began filming with his smartphone, which inspired a guy at a table behind me to walk up behind this stranger, grab his hand and almost throw it down. Sure, many of us wanted to do just that, but a simple tap on the shoulder would have sufficed. The tourist and his buddy proceeded to glare menacingly toward the regulator throughout the hour, which a) anxiously distracted me from the beautiful music and b) made me consider the possibility that a brawl might go down in the middle of a Gary Peacock Trio gig. Last issue, I wrote about a thrilling Herbie Hancock show at Walt Disney Concert Hall, but I failed to mention my neighbor—an idiot who showed up late, loudly talked at me during the music about how great the seats were, smoked pot out of a vape pen like he was trying to knock himself out, texted long enough to fire off a novella and then left way early, while special guest Kamasi Washington was still onstage making history. These examples are just two of many, and they’re representative of the kind of unnecessary weirdness that can impede the jazz-induced meditation you seek. So, as a companion of sorts to this issue’s annual festival guide, I’ve dug through my decade-plus of fest-going experience to offer a few best-behavior practices. Please, for the good of our community, take heed. (And write to me at [email protected] with additional suggestions and stories of offenders.)

Most important, keep your shirt on, because Newport is not Bonnaroo. While a couple of pithy musical observations whispered to a friend never hurt anyone, speaking at length during a set is rotten—and if you blab throughout Charles Lloyd or Wayne Shorter, may God have mercy on your soul. Same with smartphones: A quick “Where you at?” or photo is probably fine, since festival grounds aren’t the Village Vanguard; but video and text chats deserve discretion. If you know or even suspect that you’re going to drop in for just a bit of a set, stand to the side or grab an end seat rather than making everyone move so you can be dead-center for seven minutes. If you recognize a standard or a mid-solo quote, try not to name it aloud with the smug self-satisfaction of a spelling-bee contestant. Yes, that is “Lonely Woman” or “Song for My Father,” and everyone knows that; you see, us knowing that stuff is why we’re all here together at a jazz festival. If you prefer to kick back with lawn chairs and coolers and someone stands directly in front of your encampment, politely asking that person to move a few steps isn’t uncalled for. But you aren’t entitled to an unfettered sightline for nine straight hours because you choose to bring the culture of Jimmy Buffett’s “Son of a Son of a Sailor Tour” to a major jazz event. Finally, if you should meet the organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, don’t ask him why he didn’t play anything off Expansions or Astral Traveling. Those LPs are by Lonnie Liston Smith, who is a different dude. Also funky as hell, but not the same guy.

Originally Published