Fifty Years to Swing Ya Mother...

Chris M. Slawecki By

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This year, the Newport Jazz Festival, now the JVC Jazz Festival Newport, celebrates its 50th anniversary. Special events planned for the Festival will run from August 11 - 15 in Newport, RI, and honor several musicians whose talents helped make the name Newport synonymous with jazz for the past half-century.

Among these special events: Clark Terry, Phil Woods, James Moody, Ken Peplowski, Ron Carter and Jackie McLean will join the Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra salute to Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman and Count Basie; Terry will also join James Carter, Gary Burton, Regina Carter and Nicholas Payton for a salute to Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, directed by Wynton Marsalis; and “John Coltrane Remembered,” led by Michael Brecker, Roy Haynes, Christian McBride, ‘Trane’s son Ravi Coltrane and ‘Trane’s longtime pianist McCoy Tyner.

Two artists who appeared at the first Newport in 1954 will return five decades later for featured spotlights: Saxophonist Lee Konitz will lead a trio with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Billy Drummond, and bassist Percy Heath will appear with brothers Albert (a/k/a “Tootie,” drums) and tenor Jimmy, plus pianist Jeb Patton, as the Heath Brothers. Dave Brubeck will open the Festival, performing “The Gates of Justice” to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the passage of the US civil rights bill. Brubeck has performed at more Newports than any other artist.

There IS one person who has seen more Newports than Brubeck, Festival founder and producer George Wein. In addition to overseeing the Festival events, Wein has also compiled and annotated, with an introductory essay, the three-CD anniversary retrospective Happy Birthday Newport: 50 Swinging Years! with Columbia / Legacy. Fortunate to be reflecting on his life’s work while still engaged in it, Wein’s perspective on the music on Happy Birthday Newport! is both personal and historical:

“American society was a very different place in 1954. Segregation was still a part of our national consciousness. Newport symbolized American wealth and privilege. In fact, it was the last place you would expect to find a jazz festival with African-American musicians...Today, society accepts the jazz musician on par with the classical musician. The music enjoys a universal appeal. My part in this acceptance is probably my greatest contribution to the art form.”

Through Wein’s foresight, persistence, hard work and good fortune, this chronology of Newport circumscribes the history of jazz through the second half of the 20th century.

Disc One - Foundations:

Louis Armstrong dominates this first disc. He sings “Mack the Knife” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” gloriously and opens the compilation with the staggeringly slow instrumental “Tin Roof Blues,” which he carves up with his trumpet like a surgeon wielding a white-hot scalpel.

Disc one presents the legendary 1956 Duke Ellington & His Orchestra performance that remains one of Newport’s most famous moments, Paul Gonsalves’ 27 chorus tenor saxophone solo that transitions “Diminuendo in Blue” into “Crescendo in Blue.” Here’s what “27 choruses” means: Gonsalves jumps in about four minutes into “Diminuendo” and stops soloing at about ten minutes (way) out in “Crescendo”...and THEN he jumps back in for the closing choruses! This really must have been amazing to witness in person.

Count Basie & Orchestra, most notably saxophonists Frank Foster and Frank Wess and guitarist Freddie Green, rock “One o’Clock Jump” hard and fast but pause just long enough to pick up featured guests Roy Eldridge, Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet, and Jo Jones for the ride.

Muddy Waters closes disc one where Pops opened it, with the primal blues – “Tiger in Your Tank” led by pianist Otis Spann and harmonica howler James Cotton.

(You can also hear George Wein on disc one, as pianist with Ruby Braff, Bud Freeman, Wendell Marshall and Roy Haynes as the Newport All-Stars, on “Just You, Just Me.”)

Disc Three - Explorations:

Disc three begins with this set’s gemstone, a previously unreleased version of “‘Round Midnight” led by Miles Davis and pianist (and composer) Thelonious Monk, featuring saxophonists Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan and the sympathetic (and familiar to both Miles and Monk) MJQ rhythm section of bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay. Monk and Miles were both on the verge of career upswings at the time of this 1955 performance: Davis’ introductory solo cast against Monk’s brooding chords is the stuff of legend, stunning in its dark depth and beauty; Monk’s ruminations after Miles seem to lovingly tour his construction and point out cherished secret doorways that others might miss.

Davis returns with his 1958 sextet – saxophonists Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers and Bill Evans – for “Fran Dance.”

Coltrane’s 1963 quartet – pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Jimmy Garrison but with drummer Roy Haynes replacing Elvin Jones – explores his famous reworking of “My Favorite Things” with a profound sense of spiritual longing and communion. The V.S.O.P. quintet – pianist Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter on tenor, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams (Miles’ great 1960s quintet minus the leader) plus trumpet master-blaster Freddie Hubbard – embarks on Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” the sound of a new young lion pride on the prowl through dawning horizons.

Disc Two - Vocalizations:

More than half of disc two consists of tracks by a pretty fair congregation of female vocalists: Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Mahalia Jackson.

Holiday sounds spry yet worn out as she swims through her famous “Lover Come Back to Me” heartache comforted by Mal Waldron’s soothing piano. Fitzgerald stands another “Lady Day” favorite on its head, “Good Morning Heartache,” with guitarist Joe Pass and pianist Tommy Flanagan leading her ensemble. Ella is simply magnificent, bending and stretching notes in a five-star performance that the crowd could not even wait for her to finish to begin their applause.

Trumpeter Blue Mitchell and pianist Wynton Kelly help Washington grab by the throat and throttle Bessie Smith’s “Back Water Blues.” Kelly proves a great dance partner – you can trace his impact on Ray Charles from such soulful, blue performances – in this serious business blues. (Sarah Vaughan stomps similar grapes of wrath out of the “Black Coffee” blues on disc three.)

Disc two concludes with an awesomely powerful “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song” testimonial from Mahalia Jackson which climbs that golden rope ladder that leads to heaven from the tortured depths of the blues. It also features a rare glimpse of Ellington’s longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn playing piano in a quartet led by tenor saxophonist Ben Webster on Strayhorn’s own “Chelsea Bridge.” Characteristically, Strayhorn does not solo even once but proves an elegant, refined companion as accompanist for Webster’s more robustly romantic sound.

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