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The Newport Jazz Festival

A trumpeter with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Cat Anderson was renowned for his playing in the extreme high register. © Francine Winham

The Newport Jazz Festival is renowned the world over and has become a must for jazz fans across the globe. Now in its 63rd year it all began back on 17th and 18th July in 1954, when the inaugural event took place. Back then it was known as the First American Jazz Festival and took place at the Newport Casino, Rhode Island.

It was founded by George Wein after two socialites, Elaine and Louis Lorillard from Newport, Rhode Island—who often visited Wein’s Boston jazz club, Storyville—asked him to start a festival. Offering $20,000 to cover costs, as jazz enthusiasts they were eager for the greats of jazz to come play in their hometown so they could hear them on their doorstep.

Thelonius Monk performing at the Newport Jazz Festival, Rhode Island in July 1965. © Francine Winham

The idea was to get jazz out from the smoky clubs and hipster lounges so it could reach a new audience in an outdoor festival setting. The first event featured academic panel discussions along with performances from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Peterson, and Dizzy Gillespie. It was hosted by Stan Kenton.

Despite reservations, and opposition from locals, it was a great success. Not even Wein, who was a huge jazz fan, musician, and impresario, could have foreseen how well it was received.

Nina Simone performing at the Newport Jazz Festival, Rhode Island in July 1966. © Francine Winham

“He [Wein] never predicted the festival's impact—no one had set up a commercial stage in a field before and there was huge press coverage—especially of the last day, when it poured with rain and photos of 5,000 people on a field listening to jazz under their umbrellas ran around the world.” explains the Financial Times in an article on Wein’s life. “Wein's first bill included Billie Holiday re-uniting with Lester Young and, innovatively, had traditionalists and modernists sharing the same bill. ‘It was like a convention of the whole jazz world,’ he [Wein] said. ‘Everybody came: managers, agents, the press, the critics.’

Since that initial event, it has not only become an annual must-see for jazz enthusiasts, but also became the blueprint for pretty much all future open air jazz festivals. And, of course, has played host to some historic performances from many of the greats of jazz. From Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Horace Silver, Nina Simone, and Duke Ellington. It even helped launch careers of legends like Miles Davis. Many of the artists’ performances were also recorded and have become classic live albums.

Miles Davis performing at the Newport Jazz Festival, Rhode Island in July 1966. © Francine Winham

Over the years it has had its controversies too. In 1960 the entire festival was cancelled after a riot broke out due to 12,000 young people turning up who couldn’t get in. “Mobs of students, many of whom had driven long distances to hear their favorite musicians, were broken up with tear gas bombs, streams of water from high-pressure fire hoses and flying wedges of police cars.” noted the LA Times. “Youths hurled beer cans, whisky bottles, and stones at police and brandished tree branches.”

In 1969 as a response to the rise of rock, Wein booked Sly and the Family Stone, Jeff Beck, Jethro Tull, Mother of Invention, and Led Zeppelin to play—which ruffled some feathers amongst the jazz purists. Then in 1971 another, albeit smaller, riot happened after students outside stormed the fence during a performance by Dionne Warwick. It caused the last two days of the festival to be cancelled and resulted in 35 arrests for charges of drunkenness, drug violations, and disturbing the peace.

John Coltrane performing for the last time at the Newport Jazz Festival, Rhode Island in July 1966. © Francine Winham

The following year in 1972 the festival was relocated to New York City where it remained until 1981 when it came back to Rhode Island.

This year’s festival takes place on 4th to the 6th August at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island. The lineup features performances by Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, The Roots, Snarky Puppy, Maceo Parker, Branford Marsalis, Andra Day, Cecile McLorin, Rhiannon Giddens, Maria Schneider Orchestra, and many more.

Thelonius Monk performing at the Newport Jazz Festival, Rhode Island in July 1966. © Francine Winham

Take a look at the documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day, below. Released in 1960 it was filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and is directed by Bert Stern.

Rockarchive is delighted to be able to offer all these iconic Newport Jazz Festival images for sale as limited edition photographic prints, along with many other photos of jazz greats.

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