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Newport Jazz Festival celebrates 60th anniversary

Kevin C. Peterson | 7/30/2014, 12:45 p.m.
Newport lineup reflects depth of jazz music as festival marks 60th anniversary.
Jon Batiste and Stay Human Peter Lueders

In 1970, the jazz world convened to celebrate Louis Armstrong’s 70th birthday at the Newport Jazz Festival.

They did so with a series of star-packed concerts, paying homage to the aging giant who had helped create so much of what jazz was with his high-sounding trumpet and sway with songs.

One slight problem: Armstrong was only 69.

There was no willful miscalculation or pre-emption on part of the organizers at Newport.

Armstrong may have simply been deceptive—or wrong—about the year he was born: celebrating his arrival in 1900, when census records revealed it was actually 1901.

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Cassandra Wilson

Decades later, and against this backdrop, Newport Jazz Festival celebrates another rounded birthday number. This week—running from Friday, August 1st to Sunday, August 3rd—the grandfather of all jazz festivals turns 60.

“You have to give your life to these things,” says George Wein, now 88, creator of the Newport Jazz Festival, speaking in 2009 with with André and Alain Ménard, creators of the Montreal Jazz Festival.

“People think it is easy to do a festival. You just call up and get a few artists and put a stage out and make it happen. It just doesn’t happen that way. There’s thought and structure and organizational abilities and never mind your own creative genius….”

The celebration of Armstrong at Newport was an example of Wein’s genius because “Satchmo” was so essential to the development and expansion of the form for decades. And by then, Newport had featured jazz pioneers and innovators ranging from the melodic verve offered by New Orleans’ Sidney Bechet to Duke Ellington’s monumental, urbane, highly polished performances.

Newport is epic as it shadows, in a certain way, an important American historical trajectory. It is the longest running outdoor festival in U.S. history.

And like the Apollo in Harlem, Hitsville in Detroit or the portfolio of music that Gamble and Huff produced in Philadelphia, Newport ranks among the nation’s fertile creative centers where music defined cultural and political sensibilities, civic pride and nationality. Newport also offered a self-conscious country a view of its enduring contradictions about race, gender and democracy.

As the nation survived, so does Newport.

This week will welcome elders and young lions. All of them giving praise to jazz and its many meanings—some old, some new.

Among many taking the stage will be Jon Batiste, who, by age 30, reveals old soulfulness and an ability to lift from jazz lyrics clear understanding of life in its various vicissitudes. Born in Kenner, Louisiana, Batiste and his band “Stay Human” have honed a sound weighted in blues and a sense of exuberance that one hears in legends like Jelly Roll Morton or Cab Calloway.

As always, Cassandra Wilson’s presence at Newport will evoke the sound of a knowing high priestess. A vocalist of talents so able to reach into the human soul, Wilson, as the Biblical scriptures say, makes spiritual “intercession for us with groaning which cannot be uttered.”

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Wynton Marsalis

Likewise, Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra will move audiences with his highly stylized jazz treatments that are in every way a tribute and advancement upon the sophisticated music that Ellington helped to evolve.

The high time had at Newport in 1970 for Armstrong’s birthday was eventually made into a documentary that shows the humanity and humility of the man from New Orleans whose sound on the trumpet and vocal innovations delighted the nation beyond anything that it known until then.

At 60, Newport is certain to be visited by its ghosts. But it will also undoubtedly offer new musical vistas into a fruitful future.