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.
Obviously, time has moved on a lot since those days. And having taken over the editorship of JazzTimes, I felt it was nothing less than my duty to rectify the longstanding omission of Newport from my calendar. For this year’s festival, the 65th (this tally includes the years of exile in New York), I made the trip. The prospect of finally attending an event that has been part of my musical consciousness for decades was exciting but also a little intimidating. It was almost as if I were about to enter a privileged realm, where well-traveled veterans shared information that I might not even be able to understand. In other words, I was a newbie, and I felt like one.
It was around four o’clock in the afternoon on Friday, August 2, the festival’s first day (the previous night’s “One More Once” concert has been covered elsewhere), that I fully came to realize I wasn’t alone in my newbieness. From the Quad Stage inside Fort Adams, alto saxophonist Gary Bartz told a rapt crowd that he’d never been to Newport before. This, please note, is a man whose set was celebrating an album (Another Earth) he recorded 50 years ago. I found his statement difficult to believe, but it’s apparently true, though I’m told by reliable sources that he did play at least one “Newport” fest during the New York era.
Bartz and I were far from the only Newport newcomers in 2019. Almost as astonishing was the discovery that singer Dee Dee Bridgewater had also never been to the main festival before (although five years ago she appeared at the Friday-evening concert in town). In fact, a staggeringly large percentage of this year’s performers—nearly half—had either never previously played Newport at all or never played there as a leader. This doesn’t mesh with anyone’s conception of the same old same old. And then of course there were all the attendees who, like me, were making their debut. I mixed and mingled with many of them over three days in and around the fort, and much like the musicians on the four stages, they were an incredibly diverse lot in terms of age, race, and gender. I can’t speak for every one of them, but I suspect they all got comfortable pretty quick. The relaxed, friendly atmosphere and sense of common purpose helped, as did the beautiful setting on Narragansett Bay, almost nonstop sun, and hours upon hours of great music. Newport’s overarching (and much appreciated) message: All are welcome, even newbies.
A note on the following: I didn’t watch a single complete set at Newport. Instead I flitted from stage to stage, trying to get as wide a sense of the overall event as possible. Inevitably, though, a lot blows right by you at a festival like this, and there were a bunch of artists that I didn’t get to see at all. What’s here is simply the best of what I didn’t miss.