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The Newport Jazz Festival and the golden age of jazz.

CD cover

The Newport Jazz Festival was one of the great celebrations of the mid-20th century before it devolved into one of the more ossified institutions of the late 20th century. The festival—which is now called the JVC Jazz Festival—marked its 50th anniversary this year. To celebrate, its founder, George Wein, produced a three-CD compilation of live recordings—many of them never before released—called Happy Birthday Newport: 50 Swinging Years.

The title is a bit misleading. All but a handful of the set’s 27 tracks come from the festival’s first decade, specifically, 1956-63. But this more limited span is what makes the collection such a valuable—and pleasurable—document. These were the last years when the giants from all the disparate eras of jazz were still alive and playing at their peak. And Newport was the one place where, every year, they came together to play.

The tracks are arranged by musical style. Disc 1 features the old-timers (Louis Armstrong, Eddie Condon, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Duke Ellington, Count Basie). Disc 2 emphasizes those who straddled the divide between ‘30s swing and ‘40s bebop (Buck Clayton, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, as well as the singers: Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday). Disc 3 highlights the modernists (Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane).

In one sense, this is a logical ordering; each disc has a consistent, distinct sensibility. But it’s much more exciting—and better captures the era’s clashingly eclectic spirit—to play the tracks in the order that they were recorded.

For instance, at the 1956 festival Louis Armstrong played and sang ” Mack the Knife“in the hothouse style of Preservation Hall in the ‘20s— and the bebop trombone duo of J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding coolly probed endless variations, one after the other, each different from the next, on ” Lover, Come Back to Me.” The Armstrong is on the first disc; the J.J. and Kai is on the third. Each sounds terrific when heard separately, but there’s an electrifying tension when you hear them back to back, knowing that the audience at Newport heard both on the same day.

The crowds in 1958 witnessed quintessentially contrasting trumpet styles—Armstrong’s boisterous piercings on ” The Sunny Side of the Street and Miles Davis’ minimalist cool on ” Fran Dance“—as well as the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond’s insouciant cocktail of hot tempo and cool tone on ” Jump for Joy.”

Most jarring—and thrilling—of all was the 1963 festival, which included 1) the swing-era trumpeter Ruby Braff belting out gorgeous, melodic lines on “Just You, Just Me“; 2) an all-star bebop band including Howard McGhee, Clark Terry, Coleman Hawkins, and Zoot Sims tracing syncopated swirls on an impromptu jam session; 3) the Dixieland clarinetist Pee Wee Russell joining the rousingly discordant pianist Thelonious Monk on ” Blue Monk“ (the two musicians didn’t quite jell, but the cross-cultural—or, better, intergalactic—collision is fascinating to behold); and 4) John Coltrane’s quartet scaling new heights of adventure in a 17-minute rendition (rivetingly avant-garde even now) of ” My Favorite Things.” One can imagine Braff, Sims, perhaps even the ecumenical Hawkins listening from the wings, their jaws dropped and brows sweating. Because something was happening here, and nobody quite knew what it was.

Coltrane’s inclusion is an aberration not just for this collection but for the Newport festivals generally. Something was happening in the early ‘60s—to jazz and to the country.

The festival started in 1954 after Elaine Lorillard, a wealthy socialite in stuffy Newport, told her friend George Wein, “Oh, it’s terribly boring in the summer. There’s just nothing to do.” Wein, who a few years earlier had started the Storyville jazz club in Boston, thought a jazz festival—something that no one had ever put together before—might bring a little life to the place. At the time, jazz and popular music were roughly synonymous, and Wein had no trouble attracting large crowds. But in 1960, a group of more progressive jazz musicians, frustrated with the festival’s increasingly unadventurous programming, organized the Newport Rebel Festival, and held it simultaneously. The rebels included Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Ornette Coleman, joined by a few curious veterans, such as Roy Eldridge and Jo Jones. (There’s a photo from this session of Ornette Coleman and Dizzy Gillespie playing together. If anyone knows of a bootleg recording, please contact me.) During that same year’s festival, a violent race riot broke out in the town of Newport—foreshadowing the urban chaos to come. The festival shut down for a year and never quite recovered its footing. The two rebellions, together, punched out some of its joy and made its presentation of the music seem not just incomplete but old-hat—the worst adjective you could apply to jazz.

By 1964, the year after Coltrane played “My Favorite Things” at Newport, the electric guitar had replaced the sax or trumpet as the musical emblem of cool. And the jazz world itself, already on the verge of being marginalized, was torn into factions. There had long been rivalries in jazz. The revolution of the 1940s, mounted by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, split musicians and fans alike into “beboppers” and “moldy figs.” But in retrospect, the two factions had more in common than either cared to admit. Both based their improvisations on chords, and the chords came mainly from blues, standard ballads, or Broadway show tunes. The pioneers of the ‘60s revolution—Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and a reborn Coltrane—abandoned or de-emphasized the strictures of chord changes and built their improvisations on untethered melodies, tone clusters, scales, modes, or, in some cases, nothing. (“Free jazz,” it came to be called.)

The Newport festival didn’t follow that road, mainly because its audience didn’t. Instead, it clung still tighter to the older, safer acts and, to lure younger audiences, strayed into pop—especially in the 1970s, after the festival moved from the parks and tennis courts of Newport to the large, expensive concert halls of New York. Happy Birthday Newport includes a few performances from the 1970s and early ‘90s, but they’re exercises in nostalgia—Herbie Hancock’s quintet dashing through its 1965 hit, “Maiden Voyage”; Ella Fitzgerald singing a tribute to Billie Holiday or fronting a re-creation of the Chick Webb Orchestra that made her famous in 1938.

In the early 1990s, the Knitting Factory—a club in downtown Manhattan that briefly became a center for new jazz—organized an alternative festival, pointedly called the What-Is-Jazz? Festival. In response, Wein started booking some more innovative bands, mainly in smaller or cheaper venues (Uptown at Symphony Space or free concerts in Midtown’s Bryant Park). As mainstream tastes caught up with some of the ‘60s rebels, he booked them as well. For instance, at the last two JVC festivals, Ornette Coleman, whose work has now been played by symphony orchestras worldwide and whose musical genius is no longer a matter of debate, packed Carnegie Hall and prompted standing ovations.

Nonetheless, the festival can no longer be seen, in any year, as a wide-angle snapshot of the jazz scene at the moment. There are now hundreds of jazz festivals, all over the world. Jazz itself, while full of excitement, variety, passion, and virtuosity, is too fragmented—shaped by the vast influences of a global musical marketplace—to constitute a “scene.” Happy Birthday Newport is a time-capsule marking an era when there was such a scene—diverse and divisive to the point of dueling, but still vital, virile, and ebullient. It was a true golden age, and these recordings—expertly remastered—reflect its golden gleam.