Over six decades 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 I wonder if they ran into F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda and their friend Jay Gatsby on the rolling lawn of an expansive mansion atop the Newport cliffs overlooking the ocean? Gatsby would have liked what he saw and heard and he’d be there this year, along with thousands more jazz fans from everywhere, to enjoy 3 days of performances by jazz royalty from generations new and old from Friday, July 31st through Sunday, August 2nd at Fort Adams State Park.
As I take a look at the 60+ performances on the lineup I can’t help but notice a “changing of the guard” that is always inevitable in jazz history but is certainly pronounced this year as I see very few artists who’ll present music directly from bebop and more styles that spring from newer influences. That isn’t to say there won’t be any of the traditions of jazz history on display as artists from the Jazz Birthplace of New Orleans like Dr. John, Herlin Riley, Jon Batiste and Irvin Mayfield & the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra are all over the four stages at the fort. Plus there’s Lucky Peterson singing the blues, James Carter with a salute to Don Byas and special presentations celebrating the many historic performances by Miles Davis over the years at Newport. There will be great veterans bringing on the tradition when recently-named NEA Jazz Master Lou Donaldson plays the Harbor Stage on the last day, or when Pat Martino returns to his early days with his latest organ trio. There’s Jack DeJohnette presenting his “Made In Chicago” show, Tom Harrell and Jon Faddis joined by a host of young-bloods for sure to be great performances filled with tradition. There will be various big bands and jazz orchestras, including the award-winning Maria Schneider Orchestra and John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble, sure to draw at least a bit from that same traditional well.
The “World of Jazz” is on display too as Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra welcomes special guest Rudresh Mahantappa. Michel Camilo plays a duet performance with the brilliant Japanese-born pianist Hiromi after he performs the day before as a guest at Conrad Herwig’s “Latin Side of Horace Silver” show. One of the most highly anticipated shows features the teenage pianist Joey Alexander (born Joey Alexander Sila in Denpasar, Bali) who turned 12 on June 25th. He possesses incredible chops and has played jazz standards at a high level and by ear since his age was in single digits. He’s one of the current sensations of jazz without a doubt and I’m sure lots of folks will show up to see what everyone is talking about while they wonder if he might have the goods to be more than just a current curiosity. Speaking of international, Cuba sends the master trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, Canada sends Bria Skonberg and England’s popular pianist and vocalist Jamie Cullum actually plays the very last show of the festival on Sunday afternoon.
Speaking of vocalists, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, the popular Jose James brings his blend of jazz, hip-hop and neo-soul to the festival. Plus three of the finest and most popular female voices in jazz, and from different generations, are set to play Newport 2015. The great Cassandra Wilson celebrates Billie Holiday, Lisa Fischer leads the band Grand Baton and young Ms. Cecile McLorin Salvant adds her soulful vocal style to her performance with the Aaron Diehl Trio possibly singing some standards as she does on her newest release For One To Love.
And the ladies of modern jazz are well represented. In addition to those I’ve noted previously there are bands led by Helen Sung, the aforementioned pianist Hiromi, who’s become quite the Newport favorite, leading her own trio in addition to playing in a duo with Michel Camilo. And from the experimental side of things comes Chicago-born saxophonist Ms. Matana Roberts pushing the musical envelope, as those members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) are known to do.
Speaking of music coming from the left side of things, i.e. experimental, funky or new fusion, there’s plenty to enjoy at Newport this year including the brilliant, fun, up and funky collaboration between guitarist Mike Stern and saxophonist Bill Evans. The current darlings of modern jazz, Snarky Puppy, return for the second year in a row to get both the younger and older generations of jazz fans revved up and then there’s Kneebody, another band who, like Snarky Puppy, were born out of the educational experience having been classmates at the Eastman School of Music. This eclectic quintet blends jazz, funk, hip-hop, electro pop, rock and who-knows-what for a pleasing and uplifting mix. No one pushes the envelope more than saxman/composer Steve Lehman, who plays one of the first sets of the festival on Friday. Staid, stale and predictable this Newport Jazz Festival is not.
Back to that “Changing of the Guard” element of this years festival, there are established greats like Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, Jason Lindner, Billy Childs, James Carter, Frank Kimbrough, Bill Frisell and others playing alongside those from the younger generation reaching to find a similar level of recognition and success. Some of those in that group playing this year in Newport include pianist Gerald Clayton, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and pianists Aaron Diehl and Christian Sands
Now, lastly, something I feel needs to be said about the “Grandfather of all Jazz Festivals” and that Great Gatsby reference I made in the beginning of this piece. Jay Gatsby wasn’t hurting for cash, so he’s not going to have any problems hanging out at Fort Adams State Park for the three great days by the sea. He’s got lots of money in the bank, someone to drive him to and from the event and a VERY nice place to stay. What I’m getting at is that you need to REALLY want to attend this event, as it isn’t exactly easy to get to or cheap. Unless you live fairly close and can drive there yourself, there’s no mass transit directly to Newport so you’re looking at trains or planes to Boston or Providence followed by a bus trip. Newport isn’t a large city, it is in essence a quaint seaside village, so there aren’t ample accommodations with special deals so you may have to make a B&B reservation, stay in someone’s home via AirBNB or pay pretty high rates at the local hotels. There are deals on tickets for students and other discounts but it isn’t a free festival like Detroit where anyone from anywhere can just show up and enjoy jazz at the highest level for nothing. I’m not saying this as a put-down of the festival just a warning to be prepared.
Now don’t get me wrong. This is a one-of-a-kind event that has been around for over 6 decades for a reason. The scene is beautiful and the atmosphere is electric while also being relaxing. A festivalgoer feels as if he or she is witnessing history and that something special is going on, which it is. The artists that play there, veteran or up-and-coming, feel privileged and excited to be on the bill and they give inspired performances because of it. Newport itself is one of the most charming villages one is ever likely to set foot in. The people are bright and friendly and the shopping and restaurants, as well as the historical sites, will keep you busy and happy during the time you aren’t taking in the music. I’ve had any number of folks say to me…”Somewhere down the line I’ve got to make it to the Newport Jazz Festival!” I know the feeling and that’s why once again I’ll say “See you in NEWPORT!”
<I>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 <A HREF=http://www.mojaradio.com>MOJA Radio’s website</a>.</I>