Things are a little tense backstage midway through the big opening night concert at the Newport Jazz Festival, held at the International Tennis Hall of Fame stadium. The Pat Metheny band has just finished its set playing some of his most popular material. José James, a gifted and acclaimed singer but not widely known, at least compared to a jazz star like Metheny, is about to close the night with his own set. Large numbers of fans seem to be leaving the stadium—whether to grab a drink or go to the restroom or actually go home, it’s not clear. Festival director Jay Sweet, worried that the very well-dressed audience might be disappearing into the Newport night, asks artistic director and noted raconteur Christian McBride to go up and do 10 minutes or so of something—comedy, commentary, whatever—while James’ group sets up to play. McBride hustles onstage and tells some jokes and a few stories, but it comes across more like open-mic night at the Comedy Cellar. (Note: McBride is now working on a good five minutes.)
Moments later, dressed in vintage ’70s garb like a cross between Prince and Hendrix, James strolls out onstage strumming his acoustic guitar as the band kicks into “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The reaction is sudden and visceral. The audience is immediately singing along, clapping and altogether captivated. Well-dressed folks return to their seats. Crisis solved. Bill Withers’ music to the rescue, delivered by a dynamic singer backed by a tight and road-tested band.