19

The Rebel Festival

Karl Ackermann By

Sign in to view read count
The first hearing was delightful…the fourth was torture. —Whitney Balliett
On the morning of July 4, 1960, there were more than a few signs of the mayhem that had taken place the night before in Newport, Rhode Island. Newport's Millionaires Row woke up to broken store windows, overturned vehicles, and storm drains clogged with garbage and beer bottles. One-hundred-eighty-two people, mostly young, New England college students had been arrested by combined forces of the Newport Police Department, Rhode Island State Police, and troops from the state's National Guard. The incoming Jamestown Ferry was turned back, the bridge and highway blockaded. The Los Angeles Times reported that the rioting started when the mob of more than twelve-thousand was denied entrance to the full-capacity Newport Jazz Festival. Fueled by anger and alcohol, the horde went on a rampage attacking police with beer cans, whiskey bottles, and stones. Police fought back with tear gas, water cannons and "flying wedges of police cars," according to the Wall Street Journal. Fourteen rioters were charged with assaulting police officers and those who pleaded not guilty were released on bail of one-hundred-dollars. President Eisenhower was scheduled to arrive in two days for vacation and authorities wanted to be rid of the incident as quickly as possible. Almost all charges were dropped and no one was jailed.

The relationship between the festival organization and the city of Newport had become tense between 1955 and 1960. The college crowd was getting ever larger and was increasingly fueled by alcohol. They crashed everywhere from restaurant bathrooms to the lawns of residents. The city's police resources were stretched beyond their limits. John S. Wilson, writing in the July 3 edition of The New York Times explained that the Newport City Council voted 4 to 3 to cancel the remainder of festival events. In turn, Newport Jazz Festival management filed suit against the city, claiming four-million-dollars in lost revenue. John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Art Blakey, and Count Basie were among more than a dozen performers whose acts had been scheduled for the Fourth of July finale and were cancelled by the city ordinance. The Newport City Council also voted to eliminate the 1961 festival. By most accounts, the fans inside the Freebody Park venue on July 3 were unaware of the rioting in the streets. Half a mile away from the commercial neighborhood surrounding Freebody Park, on the aristocratic shoreline of Easton Bay, a hastily assembled cohort of jazz improvisers were also unaware of the rioting. They were immersed in their own rebel jazz festival on the sprawling lawn of the Cliff Walk Manor Hotel.

Competing Venues

Freebody Park had been willed to Newport by Andrew Freebody at his death in 1813. As part of the agreement, the city was to use the income generated from park events to help the poor. One of its original uses was as an open-air theater hosting music programs and vaudeville shows. The facility burned down around the turn of the century, was rebuilt again to host shows and, in the 1920s, it doubled as the home of a local minor league baseball team. Socialite Elaine Lorillard and her tobacco-heir husband Louis founded the Newport Jazz Festival as a non-profit organization in 1953 coming up with a list of performers with input from producers John Hammond and George Avakian. The first festival launched in 1954 under the Lorillard name and drew eleven-thousand fans to the Newport Casino. Popular from the start, the Lorillard's sought to move to a larger outdoor space, settling on Freebody Park after being refused their first choice of locations.

It was a commonly held belief that the Newport event was expected to appeal to jazz connoisseurs rather than the much larger market of curious and cautious listeners. By only the second festival in 1955 that perception changed almost on a whim. Writing in The Guardian, John Fordham explains that George Wein found himself in a predicament with expected headliner Charlie Parker having died four months before the sophomore festival. A living legend at thirty-four and an icon of the beat generation, Parker left a cavernous booking gap to be filled. He took a chance booking twenty-nine-year-old Miles Davis, in his first heroin recovery. Davis filled the twenty-minute space between Count Basie and Dave Brubeck with a sextet of Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonius Monk, Percy Heath, and drummer Connie Kay. They took the stage with little preparation, performing only three numbers but creating a buzz that reached far beyond jazz aficionados. Fordham writes that George Avakian was so impressed with trumpeter's fresh concepts that he signed Davis to Columbia Records the following week. Wein's gamble with Davis lent added stature to the already popular festival.

The Newport Jazz Festival—which resumed in 1962—officially outgrew Freebody Park and moved to another venue following the 1964 event. It seems clear however, that the park's capacity was the main issue in 1960. Ironically, the "rebel" contingent found their short-lived home in a bastion of excessive capitalism. John Winthrop Chanler (1826—1877) was a New York lawyer and Congressman who married into the Astor family; one of the wealthiest families in U.S. history. Chanler's summer "cottage" in Newport was one of the first summertime retreat mansions to be built along the city's shoreline. The family sold the estate in the 1920s after which its purpose changed frequently; it was a school for girls, the residence of the Bishop of Providence, and an apartment building to house Naval officers in the 1940s. Damaged by fire, it was renovated and reopened as the thirty-room Cliff Walk Manor Hotel shortly after World War II. The lawn of the manor house was approximately the size of a football field, not unlike Freebody Park, but that park was designed for sports events and had grandstand seating that Cliff Walk lacked.

Rebel Festival

In 1960 Elaine and Louis Lorillard divorced and she was removed from the board of the Newport Jazz Festival filing a lawsuit against Wein and the festival corporation. Lorillard was approached with a loosely constructed plan from Charles Mingus and Max Roach who were disillusioned with the festival. Dealing with Mingus was yet another gamble. Well-established by 1960, he had a reputation of being self-serving, bad-tempered, and arrogant. Roach, however, was highly-regarded for his classical training, professional adaptability, and he was well-liked by his colleagues. Both musicians were heavily invested in the Civil Rights Movement. By most accounts, Mingus was the driving force behind an alternative jazz festival that would coincide with the Newport Jazz Festival. Mingus, Roach and other black musicians had several grievances with the main festival and George Wein. Chief among them was Wein's pay scale. In a 2010 Wein interview with the blog JazzWax, Marc Myers reports that Mingus had agreed to play the Newport festival for seven-hundred dollars but later demanded five-thousand-dollars after learning that Benny Goodman was being paid seven-thousand-five-hundred dollars. The now-defunct Providence Evening Bulletin covered Rhode Island news in-depth and corroborated that money was the root of discontent for Mingus. However, Wein said that Goodman's fee was to be divided among an eighteen-piece orchestra. Mingus and Roach were also upset by the Newport festival's practice of giving more open-minded improvisers lower attendance afternoon time slots while saving prime-time stage time went to non-jazz performers such as John Lee Hooker, cross-over artists like Ray Charles and local favorites, The Newport Youth Band. Mingus also believed that by catering to mainstream jazz and cross-over acts, the festival was relegating black improvisers creating more challenging music to less favorable status. The 1960 festival program appears to be a color-blind bill with Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Eubie Blake, Willie Smith, Oscar Peterson, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Ben Webster, Nina Simone sharing the stage with Dave Brubeck, Maynard Ferguson, Pee Wee Russell, Herbie Mann, Gerry Mulligan, and Bob Brookmeyer. However, only the well-known headliners were documented in print. As promoter of a "jazz" festival, Wein never took the jazz title too literally. In the 1960s he booked "Moms" Mabley, The Allman Brothers, Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, Led Zeppelin, James Brown, Johnny Winter and similar acts. This rock component contributed to a second incident of rioting in 1971. Amongst reports of rampant drunkenness, Woodstock-ish bad acid, and motorcycle gangs, non-paying campers outside the venue heard of unclaimed seats and stormed the festival en masse. Clashes with police, tear gas, and billy clubs led to the second early cancelation of the festival but this time, it didn't return to Newport for seven years.

Back to 1960: Wein claimed no animosity toward Mingus but said that the Rebel Festival drew only about two-hundred fans, downplaying the little success the alternate festival had. An aerial photograph shows a substantially larger crowd and author Iain Anderson's This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) reports peak attendance of about six-hundred.

Determined to avoid the commercial trappings of the Newport Festival, the alternate event was officially dubbed the Cliff Walk Manor Festival, and was a seat-of-pants operation from the beginning, hastily planned in about two weeks. Anderson describes the set up this way: "The C.W.M. festival was virtually handmade by the musicians involved, who constructed the bandstand, decorated it...enclosed the lawn with snow fencing, erected half a dozen tents to sleep in, procured undertakers' chairs, issued handbills, and after the weekend was in progress, collected contributions from onlookers outside the fence." The headliners included the Max Roach quintet, the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop, Ornette Coleman's quartet, Coleman Hawkins, Jo Jones' quartet, Kenny Dorham, and Charlie Haden.

Reactions

There are few first-hand accounts of Cliff Walk Manor Festival. Gene Lees had covered it for the August 18, 1960 issue of Downbeat, in the article "'Newport The Music." The Canadian music critic and journalist summed up the alternative festival as "Hastily assembled, unpublicized it drew a sad little audience of 40 to 50 persons the first day." Later in his article Lees did point out that at its peak, the festival drew "about 500 persons." Whitney Balliett (1926—2007) was jazz critic for The New Yorker for nearly fifty years. His coverage of the rebel festival was less dismissive; in his even-handed analysis he found both highlights and cavernous failures. In his anthology of columns, Collected Works—A Journal of Jazz 1954—2000 (St. Martin's Press, 2000) he described Kenny Dorham's pick-up sextet as mechanically going through the motions as if the material "had been stamped on their souls." Balliett complained that performances went on for too long and that numbers were frequently repeated. In that vein, he complained that Roach's quintet had played a "slow, lengthy, bagpipe dirge...no less than four times. The first hearing was delightful, the second was absorbing for the improvisational contrasts it afforded; the third was abrasive; and the fourth was torture." Balliett found some of the breakout groupings more agreeable, citing "a duet by Mingus and Roach; a lengthy free improvisation by Mingus, Roach, Coleman, and Dorham; a collaboration by Dorham, Hawkins, and Jones; and a couple of Near Eastern love songs performed by Ahmed Abdul-Malik, the Roach bassist, on the oud." The critic found Dorham's bassist—Wilbur Ware—a highlight of the festival based on his "masterpiece" solo on "Lover Man." For Balliett the most appealing aspect of the festival was the absence of promoters, agents, and managers. When there was an emcee, it was Roach who handled the chore with low-key affability.

The First and Last Rebel Festival

A relatively early Civil Rights advocate, Nat Hentoff was the most outspoken of critics who felt the Newport Jazz Festival was over-commercialized and obliquely racist. It was he who supported and came to the assistance of Mingus, Roach and Elaine Lorillard in arraigning the alternate festival. The paltry operating budget of the C.W.M. festival did not allow for recording but Hentoff gathered the principles in a studio four months later to commemorate the event on vinyl. At its peak attendance the C.W.M. festival could not have been considered anything more than a financial fiasco. It does not appear that there was any serious discussion of reviving the dissident project and all the primary players returned to play Newport's subsequent festivals. If Mingus and Roach meant for the C.W.M. festival to be a social or political statement, it's not clear if the message translated well. Their homecoming to Wein's flock certainly would have muddied that message given that the Newport Jazz Festival continued toward even greater commercialization and its diversity was often manifested by incorporating additional non-jazz acts.

Mingus and Roach rightly saw economic equality as a crucial element in Civil Rights and the Rebel Festival was an expression of their beliefs. Mingus remained active in the Civil Rights Movement composing "Prayer for Passive Resistance," "Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me," and "Meditations on Integration." We Insist! Max Roach's— Freedom Now Suite (Candid, 1961) was the seminal Civil Rights album. The album's "Driva' Man" is the avant-garde personification of the slave driver; the call and response is straight from the fields. Roach later composed a drum piece to accompany Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Selected Discology

Charles Mingus and The Newport Rebels (Candid Records, 1961)

One month after Nat Hentoff produced We Insist! he gathered most of the Rebel Festival participants in the New York Candid label studio. The various artists were billed as both the Jazz Artists Guild and the Newport Rebels. It was Hentoff's intention to roughly approximate the music performed live at the festival though Roach appears on only one of the five tracks. The highlight of the brief album is "Mysterious Blues," featuring trombonist Jimmy Knepper and Eric Dolphy.

Roy Eldridge (1, 3, 5), Booker Little (2), Benny Bailey (4): trumpets; Jimmy Knepper (1), Julian Priester (2): trombones; Eric Dolphy: alto saxophone (1, 4); Walter Benton: tenor saxophone (2); Tommy Flanagan (1, 3, 5); Kenny Dorham (4): piano; Charles Mingus (1, 3, 5); Peck Morrison (2, 4): bass; Jo Jones, Max Roach: (2): drums; Abbey Lincoln: vocals (4).

Mysterious Blues; Cliff Walk; Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams; Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do; Me and You.

References

  • Los Angeles Times, July 3 1960
  • New York Times, July 3 1960
  • The Guardian, July 9, 2020
  • JazzWax Blog Interview, Marc Myers July 2, 2010
  • This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture: The Arts and Intellectual Life in Modern America Audible Audiobook—Iain Anderson, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006
  • Collected Works—A Journal of Jazz 1954—2000, Whitney Balliett (St. Martin's Press; 1st edition, 2000)

Post a comment

Watch

Tags

Shop Amazon

More

All About Jazz needs your support

Donate
All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, shelter in place and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary effort that will help musicians now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the bottom right video ad). Thank you.

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.