The festival’s reputation was quickly solidified with historic performances. Miles Davis’ 1955 appearance began his transformation from undependable junkie to leading musician of his generation. The next year Duke Ellington’s fading career reignited with Paul Gonsavles’ incendiary 28-chorus solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.”
Although conceived in the spirit of insurgency, Newport’s commercial success made it a target of rebellion. In 1960, bassist Charles Mingus organized a counter-festival, achieving a Pyrrhic victory when the main festival was shut down after rioting by drunken college students.
The festival reopened the following year, and thrived in Newport until 1969, when there were more riots and cancellations. When the pattern repeated in 1971, the festival was moved to New York City. Renamed the JVC Jazz Festival in 1986, it has expanded to include festivals in over a dozen cities worldwide, including renewed performances at the original Newport site.
The Newport All-Star Band mixes players from a variety of styles and eras. Saxophonist James Moody has been playing bop and its descendants since the mid-1940s. Pianist and composer Cedar Walton emerged in hard bop in the late ’50s, trumpeter Randy Brecker in the jazz-rock of the late ’60s. Guitarist Howard Alden began playing elegant retro swing in the ’80s, and saxophonist James Carter made his iconoclastic debut in the ’90s, liberating tradition-bound standards with shattering brilliance.
Brecker says such eclectic lineups are a Newport Jazz Festival hallmark. “George Wein was always putting together special bands,” Brecker says, “with just a general script and parameters. Some of the greatest performances at Newport were from put-together bands.”
One of the benefits for Wein is the ability to play the music he loves with great musicians; a talented pianist, for many years he toured with the Newport All Stars, and sat in early on the current tour.
Holding everything together, according to pianist Cedar Walton, is the support of bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash. “As long as the rhythm section is right, everything else takes care of itself,” Walton says. “It’s not a problem to create things that are cohesive, yet not too arranged.”
The music draws on much history, enabling plenty of variation in performance. “The festival spans a lot of decades, so there’s a lot to choose from,” Brecker says. “It’s really from the hip. Sometimes we do one tune, sometimes something else.”
“The sequence is very logical, intelligent, with an emphasis on entertainment,” Walton says. “We start with everyone on stage, then there’s a trio, featuring me. The other players come on, individually, or in pairs.” The shifting combinations ensure a wide sonic palette.
“It’s a kind of on-the-job training,” says Carter. “You can learn a lot backstage.”
Carter describes sitting in his dressing room, hearing James Moody warming up in his room down the hall. Carter is so charmed by what Moody was playing that he starts to play along, and the next thing he knows Moody is there, showing him exactly what he was doing. “Then he turns around and says ‘Now you give me one.’ I gave him something I’ve been working on from the 12th Dynasty of China; tit for tat.”
“It is an honest-to-goodness commune,” Carter says, lamenting the lack of opportunity for such cross-generational crosspollination in modern music. “It was just so hip, not only receiving but also being able to give.” S
The Newport Jazz Festival takes place at the Carpenter Center Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $28.50-$31.50 and can be purchased by calling 262-8100 or at the box office, 600 E. Grace St.
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