Reflections at the Newport 50th
“ Newport is virtually as synonymous with the modern jazz movement as New Orleans is with funeral marching bands, King Oliver, and the like. ”
Barry Harris Sextet
Ravi Coltrane Quartet
Branford Marsalis Quartet with Guest Miguel Zinon
Dave Brubeck Quartet
Renee Rosnes with Marian McPartland
Ron Carter Trio
Conclusions: Wither Jazz?
As a member of the All About Jazz staff, I attended the Newport Jazz Festival Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration on Saturday, August 14, 2004. I had hoped to be there on Sunday as well, but other commitments and an impending rainstorm caused me to depart earlier than I had wanted. The second day promised to be filled with more star-studded performances honoring the past, present, and future of jazz.
During an exciting day of listening, and considering the historical importance of the Newport Festival, many thoughts ran through my mind about the evolution of jazz itself. I thus offer to you not only several reviews of particular performances, but also my reflections about jazz- past, present, and future- and the place of Newport in its development.
We often think of the past half century as but a brief subtext in the seemingly long history of jazz. The reality, however, is that as of now the fifty-year old Newport Jazz Festival has existed through nearly half the total lifetime of jazz itself! If we consider the birth of jazz to co-occur with cornetist Buddy Bolden's use of improvisation around 1895, then the advent of the Newport scene in 1954 roughly marks the midpoint of its current trajectory! The human mind generally registers historical origins more slowly than recent events, so it appears at first glance that so-called "modern jazz" and the by now common festivals began after jazz had already achieved a long ancestral legacy. The fact is that in the 1950's, jazz, only a few short decades in gestation, was just beginning to turn a corner, and Newport has been a part of it ever since, along with the newer forms of expression. Indeed, Newport is virtually as synonymous with the modern jazz movement as New Orleans is with funeral marching bands, King Oliver, and the like.
So it was with a mind reflecting on the whole of what is in reality a relatively new art form that I attended the first day of the Newport Jazz Festival Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration on August 14th, 2004. Throughout the day, as I was listening to some great music in rapid fire sequence, moving among the 9,000 in attendance between the mammoth JVC Jazz Stage, the intimate Sirius Piano Stage, and the Dunkin' Donuts Stage for small ensembles, I found myself contemplating where jazz had come from, where it is today, and where it may be going. The answer to these questions is so complex as to be almost overwhelming. But I kept looking for simplicity, and for some readers, my answers will seem too simple, but I offer them as beginning thoughts for a dialogue amongst us.
My first thoughts on arriving at the site were about the significance of the setting. The festival takes place in Fort Adams State Park, on a peninsula that is accessed from downtown Newport by a short drive down narrow streets and a two lane blacktop. On gaining entry- and of course security now is a serious matter, consisting even of ticket takers sniffing water bottles to make sure there is no explosive liquid (!)- you walk past crafts kiosks reminiscent of street fairs in Greenwich Village (where the Café Society, Café Bohemia, Village Vanguard, The Village Gate, The Blue Note, and Sweet Basil have at one time or another reigned supreme among jazz venues). Then, looking to the left, you see a wide open vista of Narragansett Bay and the harbor, with sailboats and yachts lazily moving along, a suspension bridge in the distance, and a small cache of boats gathering near lands edge to hear the music. My immediate association was to the impressionist paintings of the sea, whether around Brittany or the Mediterranean, portrayed by the likes of Manet, Monet, and van Gogh. In the movie "Round Midnight," Dexter Gordon, as the addled and alcoholic, but oh so gifted tenor saxophonist, utters the name "Debussy" as if referring to a Holy One. Yes, impressionism, whether as a portrayal of bourgeois leisure, as chord structure and tonalities, as light (or in the case of jazz, sound) being broken down into component parts, or as a way of being spontaneously alive in the here-and-now, has had a profound impact on jazz.
Next, I turned my eyes towards the main stage, called the JVC Jazz Stage, loaded with the technological wizardry of impassive, huge loudspeakers looming like the statues on Easter Island, high power video equipment, and anonymous men in black tee-shirts testing the microphones. Somewhat disturbingly at first, I became aware that, for its backdrop, the entire production was taking place just outside the massive stone walls of Fort Adams, a military fortification going back to the Colonial Period and playing a significant role in guarding our shores during several wars since then. For some reason which I cannot fathom, the massive gray-brown walls echoed for me not militarism, but revolution, namely the storming of the Bastille. Jazz and the chaotic, impulse-driven origins of democracy. The two doubtless go together. So too does the French-American connection, whether as allies during the Revolution or in the French Creole traditions of New Orleans that gave birth to jazz. There was something surreal about the backdrop of an old fortress, then turning once again towards the beautiful harbor, as if the surroundings were reminding us that the mind, and the music it makes, evokes, at different times or even simultaneously, the nature of the human condition, spanning the spectrum from imprisonment in a kind of "blues" heartache to warlike invocations, honks, chants, and runs of the horns, to serenity and transcendence.
It is a tribute to JVC and their technical staff that once Barry Harris and his Sextet began to play their sequence called "Monk's Dream," the music totally captured my attention. Throughout the day, the sound systems functioned optimally, providing clean "living room" sound a thousand feet away from the stage. We are not talking about projecting loud, inundating rock music, but of capturing the subtle phrasing and timbres of a more artful and nuanced kind that deserves the name jazz. As one who is relatively naïve about technology, I was duly impressed. Only the initiated can know how such sound can be accomplished. The ability to really hear and "get into" the music in such a setting was doubtless due largely to the excellence of the audio systems. Thanks, JVC!