Dizzy Gillespie, Mahalia Jackson, Frank Sinatra, and Charles Mingus [Photos courtesy of Newportt Festivals Foundations]
Once upon a time, hosting a jazz festival in Newport was a radical idea — dangerous, even. “One society dowager took out special Festival insurance each year to cover any damage that might result from the crowds,” author/photographer Burt Goldblatt wrote in 1977’s Newport Jazz Festival: The Illustrated History. “Mrs. Louise Brugiere, the reigning queen of Newport society, said she would spend $10 million if necessary to keep the Festival out of Newport.”
Those early doubters were both right and wrong. In future years, the Festival would indeed bring riots, destruction, tear gas, booze, and blood to the streets of the famously prim and proper seaside town — so much that producer George Wein took the fest elsewhere for nearly all of the 1970s. But the Festival also brought incalculable cultural riches to Rhode Island: decades of stars, stories, and glorious solos drifting up toward the summer sky. George Wein — who, at age 88, still spends nights scouting Festival talent at Manhattan clubs — didn’t receive this country’s highest jazz honor, a National Endowment for the Arts “Jazz Master” award, for nothing.
This year, on the eve of the festival’s 60th anniversary, we dipped into the archives to better understand Rhode Island’s place in jazz history.
What did we find? A lot.
Let’s start this jam session.
Louis and Elaine Lorillard with George Wein
1954 Newport is “terribly boring in the summer,” Elaine Lorillard told George Wein in 1954. “There’s just nothing to do.” Elaine — a well-to-do Newport socialite whose husband, Louis, came from the famous Lorillard tobacco family — was introduced to the young pianist and jazz promoter who worked at Boston’s Storyville jazz club, by a Boston University English professor. And she quickly suggested he help arrange a jazz event in Newport.
“I thought at first that it would be appropriate to open a seasonal jazz club there, similar to my summer Storyville endeavors in the Massachusetts resort towns of Gloucester and Magnolia,” Wein later wrote of those early meetings with Elaine and her husband, Louis. “Something about the Lorillards’ bold enthusiasm, however, led me to widen the scope of my ambition.”
The couple soon offered a $20,000 budget and Wein went to work, arranging a venue (the Newport Casino), performers (Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ella Fitzgerald) and panel discussions (“The Place of Jazz in American Culture”). The event, which took place July 17 and 18, was a smash. More than 11,000 guests showed up across two nights, and The Providence Journal wrote, “To say the whole affair was a success is a considerable understatement.”
The first fest in 1954
A lengthy write-up in the August 15, 1954 New Yorker captured Wein’s enthusiasm. “This town will never be the same again,” he said at one point. “We could make Newport the jazz center of the world. What Salzburg is to Mozart! What Bayreuth is to Wagner! What Tanglewood is to classical music! That’s what we could make Newport be to jazz!”