Jazz at Newport Turns 50 Amid Worries for Future
- Jazz at Newport Turns 50 Amid Worries for Future
By Justin Kenny
NEW YORK (Reuters) - George Wein, the 78-year-old founder of the now
legendary Newport Jazz Festival, can boast a half century of success
in drawing big audiences to hear jazz, but he worries about the
future of the quintessentially American musical genre.
The event, now called JVC Jazz Festival Newport, turns 50 years old
next week and has long been a magnet for jazz's top talent including
Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Duke
Ellington and Dave Brubeck.
This year's festival, which opens on Wednesday for a five-day run, is
seeing the strongest ticket sales in five years and is attracting
some of the biggest names in jazz today.
Despite his feelings of pride and nostalgia, Wein is worried about
what will happen to the festival after he's gone.
"The problem with jazz is that the legends are gone .... We have
many, many wonderful young musicians but they haven't the following
that say a Miles Davis had," said Wein.
This year's festival line-up includes Wynton and Branford Marsalis,
Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Harry Connick (news) Jr., Ornette
Coleman and the man who has played more Newport festivals than any
other artist, 83-year-old Dave Brubeck.
But Wein said he has an uphill battle when he's selling jazz. Most
years at Newport, Wein supplements a jazz lineup with rhythm and
blues and world music artists to appeal to a wider audience.
"I am very unhappy in what is happening, in not just jazz, but in
show business in general because the only thing people are interested
in is celebrity nowadays. That's the only thing that really sells
tickets," said Wein.
"The concept of creating a great cultural event -- it doesn't have
the meaning it had before. This is a world of celebrity. You put one
name on there that has what you call celebrity and it sells more
tickets in one hour than you can sell in 6 months to a great
festival," said Wein.
"I worry about that because there's not that much celebrity involved
in jazz at the moment. It's just great music."
FIRST OUTDOOR POP FESTIVAL
Wein is arguably one of the most influential men in American jazz. In
1954, the short Jewish kid from the Boston suburbs made musical
history when he launched the first major outdoor popular music
festival in the United States at Newport.
Wein used the event as a springboard and created and produced
hundreds of festivals (not just jazz) around the world including the
Newport Folk Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Wein still has the ability to draw crowds. Tens of thousands flock to
the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival to hear a blend of rock,
funk, jazz, blues, cajun, zydeco and world music every spring.
The lessons of marketing to today's celebrity-oriented audience has
been a difficult one for the jazz ambassador who has seen his
festival propel and reignite some of the great giants of jazz.
"A number of musicians became influential and successful through
appearances at Newport," according to columnist and jazz historian
"Miles Davis made his comeback at Newport so did Duke Ellington. Duke
Ellington was kind of at the bottom of the business and then he
played a concert there in 1956 and this blonde got carried away and
started dancing in front of the band, then the whole audience started
dancing and they went crazy. So, Duke Ellington went all they way up
from the bottom right back up to the top," said Crouch.
While much of the festival's glory lies in the past, Wein is hoping
to create a few legendary moments at this year's birthday
celebration. Some of the planned highlights include a tribute to John
Coltrane featuring the late musician's son Ravi and Michael Brecker
on saxophone, bassist Christian McBride and Coltrane contemporaries
pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Roy Haynes.