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Newport Jazz Festival @ 60: From Jazz Jazz to Jammin’ Jazz

Russ Davis previews the 60th anniversary of the historic jazz festival

Dee Dee Bridgewater performing at the 2014 Exit O International Jazz Festival

Back in the late 1980’s in the heyday of what was then called “Contemporary Jazz” the Los Angeles-based pianist Rob Mullins released one of his most popular albums. He titled it Jazz Jazz. For anyone who might have been confused by that title it seemed to be an obvious reference to his intent, to make an acoustic record that had one foot in traditional jazz and the other firmly in the modern world of what was then a very accessible form of improvised music that was dominating the airwaves at the time. He wanted there to be no mistake. This WAS a JAZZ recording. This year, as “The Grandfather of all Jazz Festivals,” the Newport Jazz Festival, turns 60 years old there’s plenty of “Jazz Jazz” on the lineup and everything else one might imagine in a 21st century jazz festival from world jazz to hip hop jazz to big band jazz to vocal jazz to jamband jazz and more!

60 years ago when George Wein and his associates were cruising around the lovely seaside village of Newport, Rhode Island and deciding that this would be a perfect place to stage a grand celebration of jazz it was pretty certain what the performance schedule would look like in 1954. It was a dream lineup of some of the greats of all time including Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Horace Silver, The Modern Jazz Quartet and many more. Some of those original participants will be playing this year, including saxophone legend Lee Konitz who will invite a youngster from the new generation of traditionalist saxophonists, Ms. Grace Kelly, to join him on stage.

Others artists who’ll be there to carry on the tradition include Ron Carter with Russell Malone and Donald Vega, Dick Hyman with Howard Alden & Jay Leonhart, and that band of all-star swingers, The Cookers, will make sure no one forgets that if you want to play “Jazz Jazz” you have to hit on the ones and the threes! Plus there will those who arrive with the intent to pay homage to those who’ve come before as Chris, Darius and The Brubeck Brothers will surely conjure images of father Dave taking the stage at Newport. The award-winning alto sax man Rudresh Mahanthapa unleashes the world premiere of his Charlie Parker Project, while the son of John Coltrane, Ravi, will bring his own formidable chops to the scene along with the spirit of his fabulous father.

Just so no one gets lost in the joys of being in one of the most pleasing scenes anyone could be to hear jazz, the beautiful setting of Fort Adams State Park, and forget the place where jazz was born, there will be plenty of the sound of New Orleans filling the air in Newport this year. NOLA fans will enjoy Mr. Troy Andrews, AKA Trombone Shorty, playing with his group Orleans Avenue. Jon Batiste & Stay Human carry on the Crescent City tradition with their Friday evening set. None other that Mac Rebbenack, the legendary Dr. John himself, will bring a little of The Jazz & Heritage Festival to Newport too, and the man, or should I say THE MAN, Wynton Marsalis, of the NEA Jazz Master first family of jazz plays two sets during the weekend with his incredible Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra.

And speaking of big bands, the setting in Newport is out of doors with the Newport Harbor all around and a big sky up above, so a BIG band is especially great to hear in such a place where a large sound goes a long way. Besides Wynton and company, fans of large ensembles and big bands will have plenty to enjoy including the not to be missed modern take on big band from the brilliant Canadian via Brooklyn, Darcy James Argue and his Secret Society. There’s Brian Blades & The Fellowship Band, The SF JAZZ Collective, The Mingus Big Band, The Django Festival All-Stars and other groups. Plus, the Newport @ 60 All-Star band including greats like Randy Brecker, Anat Cohen, Mark Whitfield, Clarence Penn, Lew Tabackin, Howard Alden, Karrin Allyson and even Mr. George Wein himself will play two sets during the weekend.

One of the dominant trends in jazz today is being called “World Jazz” or music played not only by Americans creating music with a foreign flavor but international artists giving the world their take on improvised music that addresses their own cultural roots. Among those serving up this style at Newport this year includes Panama’s great pianist and composer Danilo Perez presenting his Panama 500 project, The Amir ElSaffar Quintet, John Zorn and a cast of thousands with his 2 1/2 hour Masada Marathon, Stefano Bollani & Hamilton de Holanda presented by Italy’s Umbria Jazz, Puerto Rico’s great saxman Miguel Zenon and rising Latin music percussionist Pedrito Martinez and his group, among others.

If it’s vocalists you want then you’ll keep yourself busy running from stage to stage to hear the likes of Bobby McFerrin, performing his latest project Spirityouall, or to catch one of two sets by maybe the hottest young singer to come along in years, Cecile McLoring Salvant. Joe Williams isn’t with us anymore but many think that young Mr. Gregory Porter is filling in just fine and I’ve mentioned Karrin Allyson and Dr. John who will most certainly thrill those coming to hear vocal jazz. But the best of them all, in my humble opinion, will take the stage at the International Tennis Hall Of Fame site at the Newport Casino where Friday’s opening night event happens with Wynton Marsalis and company along with the lady who to me is the reigning queen of jazz vocalists, the great Dee Dee Bridgewater. Dee Dee will bring her fabulous celebration of Billie Holiday, To Billie With Love, to Newport after a wonderful run off-Broadway in New York. This Grammy-winning musician, Tony-winning actress, Jazz Journalists Association award winning broadcaster, singing, composing, acting renaissance woman just added “Producer” to her line of credits. She discovered trumpeter Theo Croker in her band while playing in China a few years ago and he’ll join her on stage in Newport. And by the way, she produced his brilliant debut album Afrophysicist which is as fine a statement of modern jazz as you’re likely to hear in 2014.

Speaking of the modern side of things, including the “Jammin’ Jazz” I mentioned earlier, the reigning stars of jazz today will line up and play Newport to celebrate the 60th year. There are no bigger names than Gary Burton, playing with his latest New Quartet, Dave Holland and his new electric group Prism, David Sanborn and Joey DeFrancesco leading a grooving quartet, innovative guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, award-winning pianist Vijay Iyer leading an all-star sextet and the Texas-born pianist Robert Glasper, who’ll play Newport for the second year in a row and is doing as much as anyone these days to marry the traditions of jazz with the most modern of musical styles from country to hip hop. Then, for something completely different, there are two bands from New York, though originally from other places, who stretch the boundaries of jazz while playing the same instruments that the bands at the 1954 edition of the Newport Jazz Festival might have played. Mostly Other People Do The Killing (don’t be afraid, they won’t harm you) is a quartet led by bassist Moppa Elliot that will expand their usual setup to an octet including that inventive master of the slide trumpet, Steve Bernstein of Sex Mob and Millennial Territory Orchestra fame, to please the more adventurous festival goers on Friday just after noon. To close out the first day at the fort new Grammy-winners Snarky Puppy from Brooklyn via Texas will jazz-funk-rock-jam things up nicely.

If variety is truly the spice of life then “make mine extra spicy, waiter, and take me to the 60th edition of The Newport Jazz Festival!” What more can I say? How about “See you in NEWPORT!”

Russ Davis

Russ Davis produces and presents the only jazz program – “Jazz America” – for the U.S. Government Service, Voice of America. He also programs and presents the online modern jazz channel MOJA Radio, a subscription service. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show by visiting MOJA Radio’s website.

Originally Published