Newport Jazz

Nathan Holaway By

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This article was first published in 2005.

The summer seeks scintillating sounds from the jazz sectors. Indeed, it is at this minuscule place that massive talents come together. Who could possibly hypothesize that such a small stretch of land could be the breeding ground for new ideas, the ideal place for musical re-unions, or the pre-destined landmark for one of the greatest comebacks in jazz history. Whether you have actively been in the crowd, heard the crowd on record, or seen film footage of the audience, you know that it is a jubilant and joyous occasion when you hear jazz at this particular Northeastern destination. Records, pictures, and films all convey images that are reminiscent of familiar words written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan,

A stately pleasure dome decree..."


Started in 1954 by jazz pianist George Wein, the Newport Jazz Festival was the first outdoor festival entirely devoted to the jazz idiom. In its 50 year reign, it continues to be the model for jazz festivals everywhere. The name Newport has become synonymous with the history of jazz. It has hosted the greatest giants, geniuses, and innovators this art form has known. It was even the subject of Bert Stern's film Jazz on a Summer's Day which documented many classic performances of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Luckily, many of the great performances have been recorded for people to enjoy throughout the course of time.

Duke Ellington: Ellington at Newport 1956 (Columbia, 1956)
This is the classic performance that gave Duke Ellington the comeback of a lifetime. As the story goes, Ellington never gave "pep talks to his members before concerts, but this performance was different. His band was losing money, and "operating at a loss at that particular juncture in time. Ellington's "pep talk must have worked wonders. When he called for "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, the band took flight: most especially Paul Gonsalves on tenor sax. He started soloing, and as he began to do so, a voluptuous blonde in the front could not control herself any longer to the pulsating and driving rhythm of the Ellington Orchestra. Duke cued Gonsalves to keep going and keep going until Gonsalves wound up taking 27 quantum choruses that will forever be remembered in the annals of jazz history.
Count Basie: Count Basie at Newport (Verve, 1957)
This particular night at Newport was host to a cavalcade of legends. It was similar to a high school reunion. The artists joining Basie on the stage that evening, were a 'who's who' in jazz: Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Thad Jones, Frank Foster, Illinois Jacquet, Frank Wess, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Jimmy Rushing, and Joe Williams among many talented others. With new and sizzling versions of "Lester Leaps In, "One O' Clock Jump, and "All Right, Okay, You Win, there are tender moments on "Polka Dots and Moonbeams as well. An essential chapter in Newport history.
Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday: Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday At Newport (Verve, 1957)
Two giants—two distinct voices—one common music. This disc includes Fitzgerald's and Holiday's sets at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. This collection is worth having for three reasons: to hear Ella scat and swing the crowd out of their seats and onto their feet on selections like "Air Mail Special only to have Lady Day drive them into listless speechlessness with her earthy vocals. Holiday would pass away a mere two years from this concert. The third reason for purchasing this disc is to catch a few numbers by an up-and-coming vocal star by the name of Carmen McRae. Although she only has four numbers on this disc, it's interesting to hear what McRae sounded like before she polished her voice into the sound we are all so familiar with now.
Dizzy Gillespie: At Newport (Verve, 57)
One can hear Gillespie in all his many splendours on this album. Whether its Diz clowning around with the audience, Gillespie's driving arrangements, or his uber-hip trumpet lines, it's all worth it. Joining Gillespie in his band are Benny Golson, Lee Morgan, Al Grey, Melba Liston, Wynton Kelly, Charlie Persip, and the semi-retired Mary Lou Williams, with the band giving treatment to three movements from her Zodiac Suite ("Virgo, "Libra, "Aries )
as well as her sitting in on the standard "Carioca.
Gigi Gryce—Donald Byrd Jazz Laboratory / Cecil Taylor Quartet: At Newport (Verve, 1957)
This disc is a double feature. It not only contains the hip group led by saxophonist Gigi Gryce and trumpeter Donald Byrd, but it also contains the early Cecil Taylor Quartet which features Steve Lacy. Many feel that the reasoning behind the double billing is due to the avant-garde nature of Taylor's quartet. Despite the ferociousness of Taylor's quartet, the Gryce—Byrd Jazz Laboratory is a solid group. "Splittin' is the group's most valid representation on this record. But, the most memorable moment is Taylor and Lacy's interpretation of Strayhorn's "Johnny Come Lately where they deconstruct the melody in a way that only they can.
Miles Davis: At Newport 1958 (Columbia, 1964)
There are certain things that are just fact. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and everyone who has ever heard Kind of Blue is moved in one unspeakable way or another. One of the reasons behind that magic is because Miles Davis (the ultimate human catalyst)
combined John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers, and Bill Evans in the same group. The combination of that diversity and chemistry resulted in one of music's greatest accomplishments. That same group can be heard here on Miles Davis At Newport 1958 in a live setting. With classic tracks of "Bye Bye Blackbird and "Straight No Chaser, how can anyone possibly go wrong with this?
Nina Simone: Nina Simone at Newport (Colpix / Phantom, 1960)
Nina Simone had one of those starkly distinct voices that commanded the listener's attention. Few others have possessed that quality. Of course anyone who has ever heard recordings of Simone live, knows that she possesses a different aire and magic when she performs live. Imagine combining Simone's live prowess with the unmistakable magic of Newport. What an irresistible concoction! Presented here are stunning takes of "Porgy and "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To. A must have.
Thelonious Monk: Monk at Newport 1963 and 1965 (Columbia, 2002)
Thelonious Sphere Monk is a classic case involving the Newport Jazz Festival. The NJF started in 1954, and Monk made his first appearance at Newport in 1955, and was greeted with mixed reactions. People would gather around him in 1955 the way people go to see a "freak show of some sorts. By 1958, he was intriguing enough to be included in Bert Stern's film Jazz on a Summer's Day playing his composition "Blue Monk. But by the time the 1960s came around, Monk was a jazz icon and considered a compositional genius worldwide. What we have in this double disc set is Monk's performances from 1963 and 1965. The performance from 1965 was previously unreleased due to faulty labeling. So now, the listener can enjoy previously unreleased Monk at Newport in the company of an appreciative audience.
Joe Williams: At Newport '63 (RCA, 1963)
Joe Williams swingin' his ass of at Newport. That should be enough for anyone to go and check this album out. If that's not enough, he's joined by Clark Terry, Zoot Sims, Ben Webster, and the great Coleman Hawkins. As most jazz aficionados know, there are two sides to Joe Williams: the sincere balladeer, and the vocalist who can swing your socks off. This particular date deals with the latter. With takes of "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm, "Everyday I Have the Blues, and "Roll 'Em Pete, this is as exciting as Newport gets!
John Coltrane / Archie Shepp: New Thing at Newport (Impulse / GRP, 1965)
John Coltrane was a shooting star in the jazz world. The man who almost single handedly brought the deepest spiritual essence to jazz music, astounded critics and musicians alike. Even through all of his musical innovations, Coltrane continued to press forward and never chose to rest on his laurels. It was with this locomotive-like velocity that Coltrane moved into the realm of the avant-garde or "new thing as it was called then. In 1965, during a time of racial turmoil, Coltrane tried to reflect the travesties and changing times through his music in the most pungent and realistic ways, sometimes leaving the listener's ears utterly raw. Here at Newport, the listener can see the beginnings of those directions as he shared the stage with one of his most loyal disciples, Archie Shepp. Classic innovation, classic Newport.

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