Jazz Fest and Newport
Two festivals that influenced each other
Jay Sweet and George Wein
Forty-six years ago George Wein, founder of both Newport Jazz and Folk festivals, was invited down to New Orleans in order to help establish the event that would become the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. This fateful invitation set off a series of events that would perpetually entwine the sounds of New Orleans with the Rhode Island shores of Newport.
Each summer around the world the great rituals surrounding music festivals gear up to unfurl themselves. To a great degree we have George Wein to thank for this proliferation. The 1954 Newport Jazz Festival featured a series of live performances on an outdoor stage with attendees lounging on the lawns of the Newport Casino. The success of this arrangement set the wheels in motion for the proliferation of these events around the world. One of the key elements that distinguishes festivals from one another are the people that naturally gravitate to them. They really flourish when a community of mutual appreciation forms among the attendees, artists and organizers.
When I spoke with Wein, it became clear that he understands this better than anyone. He talked about his time in New Orleans and his vision for the festival, “Well, I wasn’t steeped in New Orleans … but I knew about gospel. I knew about Louis (Armstrong). I knew about funk. I knew about the Fats Dominos, the Allen Toussaints and that side of New Orleans music. I knew about the jazz side of New Orleans music. I had played with Sidney Bechet … I’d worked with him in Europe and Bechet was pure New Orleans. The whole element of working with the gospel, the blues, the funk, the jazz – I realized there was a street culture there. And I mean literally, a street culture that no other city in the world had. The totality of a culture that was New Orleans is still there.” Wein’s vision for the festival would encapsulate not just New Orleans culture but the culture of Louisiana as well. “That was my purpose, that’s not just to go with one direction in New Orleans, to bring in the entire element of the city, as you say, the uptown, the downtown. New Orleans is a history of different cultures, between the Creole and the African-American and the Spanish, and the French, and the English. The whole thing is, you have to hit it all or you don’t get anything.”
In order to effect this vision, Wein began to look for allies and, more importantly, recruits. Quint Davis was recommended to Wein by Dick Allen, who was the director of the Tulane University Hogan Jazz Archive at the time. The rest, as they say, is history. According to Wein, Davis hit the ground running. “I just threw the book at him, I said, ‘You gotta do this.’ I’ve always done that. It’s like, I take people and throw them in the water, if they could swim, good; if they can’t, they can’t. But Quint swam pretty good.” Wein wanted Davis to take the New Orleans festival in a different direction.
Davis and I chatted quite a bit about Wein’s vision. According to Davis, Wein said, “If you have something the same as the Newport Jazz Festival, then you will always be second to that. You’ll always be a festival like Newport, and Newport will be the most famous.’ And George knew a lot about New Orleans. I mean, he personally worked with Louie Armstrong, he worked with Mahalia Jackson. When I met him, he was staying with Allan Jaffe of Preservation Hall. So he said, ‘Rather than copying it ... The one thing that New Orleans has that no one else in the world can lay claim to is the birthright of jazz. The birthright.’”
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Newport Jazz and Newport Folk all share a common origin story. Each festival takes as its mission the delivery of music in its purest form to the devout faithful in attendance. Each festival focuses on the culture that makes that music blossom. Each festival generates a space where musicians are free to experiment. The shared heritage of these festivals sets them apart from the field. These environments create moments that are truly immortal.
Davis recalls one of these unlikely moments from the early years of Jazz Fest, “The whole reality of the premise and the whole reality of the culture that George understood happened. He brought Mahalia and Duke out … there’s a picture of George and Duke Ellington. Duke was holding a little umbrella, a second-line umbrella, and Mahalia’s standing next to him in a checkered dress.
Well, the Eureka Brass Band, ’cause we had second-lines, came marching down through the park … and they see Mahalia Jackson, and they stop. And somehow, we handed Mahalia a mic off of a stage … and they start playing ‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee,’ and she starts singing it with them. So now, we got the birth of jazz in a jazz funeral where these African musicians with Western instruments were playing hymns in a funeral procession and the greatest gospel singer that there ever was, who was also from New Orleans, is singing with them.”
Most uniquely, these festivals were founded to be, and remain, family friendly. Part of the strength of the communities around these events is directly built by the passing of the fire from generation to generation. According to Davis, “George gave us the gift of maintaining that [generational heritage]. When the Jazz Fest opens, we have a saying that it’s ‘wheels to wheels.’ It’s people who are too young to walk and people that are too old to walk. And it’s not often that you’ll have a big popular event like this where people wanna take their children with them, or the children wanna take their parents with them.”
This philosophy applies to the programming of the festivals as well. Jay Sweet, who has been programming Newport Folk Fest since 2008 and is the newly named Executive Producer of the Newport Festivals Foundation, spoke to me about the role that history plays in these festivals. “I think if we can turn people on by having a Jack White get up there and in the first couple of songs he’s doing Son House and Lightnin’ Hopkins, that makes a lot of younger people go back into the (19)70s people … the ongoing story of Newport Folk is continuously written every single year. It’s just a new chapter. It’s all tied to what has come before it.” The weight of that history for both the Newport festivals and the New Orleans Jazz Festival draws these performances from the musicians. Together the fans, musicians and organizers create a vibe. The best of these vibes are self-amplifying; they propagate a resonance that sustains the excitement for the next installment almost immediately after the last one is over.
Ultimately, George Wein, Quint Davis and Jay Sweet are bound together through a love of New Orleans. The impact of our past and present echoes through the fundamental elements of these festivals. New Orleans doesn’t just inspire these men; the city instructs them as well. I think Wein put it most succinctly: “When I came to New Orleans, I utilized what I’d learned from New Orleans to bring it back to New Orleans.”
There is a profound love for the blends of genres, cultures and styles that swirl around our city. Sweet identified it not just as a culture but as a sound. For him it’s the sound that’s truly unique. “When [music fans] talk about jazz or folk in the aspect of how we, meaning we as in people who love New Orleans, [the fans say] ‘that’s a totally New Orleans sound.’ I feel like Newport is the same; when people talk about Newport [they say] ‘it’s totally a Newport Festival’…they use Newport as comparison because it is what it is. It’s self-defined.” These unique sounds have inspired those who love them to create and share spaces where the music and musicians can flourish. The key to these spaces is that they preserve without stagnation and foster growth without diminishing the past.
According to Davis, “the incredible thing about New Orleans culture, going all the way back even before Louis, King Oliver and Baby Dodds … There’s a gene pool, there’s a talent pool here in all these forms of music that keeps regenerating; it’s unbelievable. It’s amazing that we’ve had generation after generation of heritage, I think people sometimes think of it as a rear view mirror kind of thing, ‘Oh it’s heritage, it’s history, you can look back.’ But here heritage is through the front windshield, too; it’s what’s down the road, it’s what’s coming.”
These festivals are built to bring us together to celebrate not only history, but also the evolution of that history moving forward. We may call it history, but we’ are really living the vital cultural moments that make life worthwhile. On of the last things that George Wein said to me was, “My whole life is history.” We have grown with these remarkable festivals as individuals and communities in such a way that our lives are history as well, and that’s exactly how it should be.