I have a confession to make: Before this year, I’d never been to the Newport Jazz Festival. Growing up in and around Boston with a jazz-fan dad, I was certainly aware of the festival and its long history. I listened to classic albums recorded live at Newport. Every year our local public television station would show highlights of the past year’s fest, and I’d tune in. There was plenty to marvel at, most memorably the twin architectural wonders that were Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks. But the closest I got to the action was on a TV screen. Jazz may have been appreciated in my house, but festivalgoing wasn’t a family priority; for a good part of my youth, the budget for such adventures just didn’t exist.
Later, when I was working for various music publications that covered jazz, I could easily have gone to Newport, but I did not. I could say that it still wasn’t a priority, and that’s true as far as it goes. But there was more to it than that. This was the era of Michael Dorf’s What Is Jazz? Festival (later renamed more than once) and other left-field reactions to mainstream booking policies. The jazz artists I was most excited about played underground joints like the Knitting Factory and Tonic; to think they’d ever be featured at Newport seemed almost inconceivable.