On July 17, 1954, something happened in Newport, Rhode Island that made an indelible mark on jazz history - and in the scope of popular music presentation as we know it today.
Before Woodstock, before Coachella, before Monterey, there was Newport.
The first Newport Jazz Festival, actually dubbed the American Jazz Festival that inaugural year, was held July 17 and 18, 1954 at historic Newport Casino, a stately tennis venue now known as the International Tennis Hall of Fame, along toney Bellevue Avenue.
A temporary bandshell, covered in thick cardboard, was erected on a berm overlook the tennis courts. As Burt Goldblatt recalled in his book, Newport Jazz Festival, The Illustrated History, the music kicked off at 9:18 that Saturday night when guitarist Eddie Condon's Dixieland band dug into the trad jazz classic "Musktat Ramble."
|Newport Jazz Festival, 1954*|
Other featured performers that inaugural weekend included singers Lee Wiley, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday; the Modern Jazz Quartet; and bands led by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonists Lee Konitz, Gil Melle and Gerry Mulligan, guitarist Johnny Smith, and pianists Oscar Peterson, George Shearing and Lennie Tristano. It closed with an explosive set by drummer Gene Krupa's trio. A few jam sessions and all-star mixing and matchings were thrown in for good measure.
The festival that first year was estimated to have drawn a combined weekend crowd of 13,000.
Newport was the granddaddy of outdoor American music festivals that were quick to follow.
And all because Newport socialite Elaine Lorillard and her tobacco-heir husband, Louis, wanted to do something to enliven the stodgy summer scene. They hired George Wein, who wan Boston's Storyville jazz club, to produce the event.
Wein, now 94, is still at it. He oversees the Newport Festivals Foundation, a nonprofit that he and other forward thinkers created a few years ago to keep the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival alive well into the future.
Like so many other events near and far, the 2020 edition of the Newport Jazz Festival was shelved because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The many fans and supporters - and the musicians themselves, are waiting to see how the "new normal" will affect this large-scale outdoor gathering going forward. As a relative latecomer, I've been attending the Newport Jazz Festival annually since 1981, the year Wein brought the storied event back to Newport after a nine-year absence.
Some history on that 1972-1980 absence:
Gate crashers and bear-swilling rowdies not content to listen from the hillside, stormed Festival Field on Saturday July 3, 1971. bring that year's event to a premature end. Ironically, Dionne Warwicke was on stage singing "what the World Needs Now Is Love" when the fences came crashing down. Wein took his concept to New York City.
The festival returned to Newport in 1981 as the city's movers and shakers realized times had changed - and the event could be held at a more controlled setting, Fort Adams State Park, located on a peninsula across Newport Harbor from the downtown business district.
*photo courtesy of Newport Festivals Foundation archives.