A jazz-lover returns to Newsport and finds them still swinging
The stage stood against the stone wall of Fort Adams State Park, with the picnicking audience between it and the seashore. Someone denied that a token taker on the faraway Newport Bridge had phoned that he could hear the music. But nearby boats signaled that it was coming across the water just fine. "You don't get paid for adding to the atmosphere," joked impresario George Wein over the loudspeakers, bringing the Newport Jazz Festival back home for the first time in 10 years.
Could he have helped remembering the glorious sailing scenes in "Jazz on a Summer's Day," the renowned film about the Newport festival before the festival left to become a fixture in New York?
Last weekend it was jazz on two summer days. And, even before Saturday's official noontime opening, a theme was set for this returnee from the first festival here 27 years ago. It came when early arrivers heard the Rhode Island high school all-stars, in their T-shirts and jeans, start right out playing the music of Count Basie, a bandleader of their grandfathers' generation.
The uniforms were different from the zoot suits or waiters' jackets their counterparts were wearing in Basie's earlier days. But the music was linking the generations, as they went on to play the music of Woody Herman and, from a middle generation, Maynard Ferguson. The link became literal when the bandleader noted his son was in the band.
The theme continued when the stars of the six-hour afternoon concert appeared. There was veteran drummer Mel Lewis surrounded by a band of young musicians, with guest star saxophonist Zoot Sims, who had been just such a young sideman with Woody Herman a few decades before. There was an even more veteran drummer -- Buddy Rich -- surrounded by young musicians, keeping their playing up to the mark, showing himself no quarter, and bringing the show to a spectacular finale. There was septuagenarian trombonist Vic Dickenson, who played in the first Newport festival, now in a band with Bob Wilber, maybe two decades his junior, who as a brilliant teen-age soprano saxophone player had surrounded himself with ancient New Orleans musicians. (The Sunday concert -- which this returnee, alas, had to miss -- also included stars such as Dizzy Gillespie and Milt Jackson from the first festival in a program of tribute to Lionel Hampton.)
The point is to stress not the ages of these musicians but the continuity of the music they play and teach and learn from one another. Not to be too solemn about it, this continuity was reflected in the span of generations strolling, reclining on blankets, sitting in beach chairs on the Fort Adams turf while sea gulls walked the ramparts.
As for styles of music -- each excellently represented -- there was no equivalent of the uncompromising avant-garde brought by Lennie Tristano to the first festival. But there was pianist McCoy Tyner, not resting on his laurels but venturing into violin-sax voicings where trumpet-sax might have been expected. Eventually he played a riff tune from his days with the late master innovator John Coltrane -- a tune which, in another sign of the times, sounded almost like a standard.
There was Dexter Gordon's tenor sax, a kind of monument to the bop years and much of what came later, with the lightning accompaniment of Woody Shaw's trumpet and Art Farmer's flugelhorn. There was Mel Lewis using his own mellow drums and the arranging talent of trombonist Bob Brookmeyer on "The American Express," showing that a big band can swing lightly, wittily, and with an occasional royal wedding sound. There was Ruby Braff -- one more alumnus from the first Newport festival -- sticking to the cornet, rather than more common trumpet, and bridging the generations in himself with always fresh playing rooted in tradition.
What does this all add up to?
When America's first major jazz festival began in 1954, the dream was to make Newport the Tanglewood of jazz.Whether or not that dream can be revived, a quarter-century has only confirmed that jazz in its short history has become the American classic music. Classic in the sense that it is not simply a matter of one kind of music (Dixieland, swing, bop, free-form) following another and being in turn replaced. It is a matter of forms surviving, coexisting in a musical library on which new musicians can draw as they choose.
Nor is it only new musicians who can choose. Recall the late Pee Wee Russell , the superb "traditional" clarinetist, who, incidentally, was observed discussing music with the ambassador from Argentina at an elegant Newport party during that first festival. Like the great tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, he showed he could join in with later schools when he chose.
On Saturday, Dexter Gordon had to be recalling Hawkin's landmark 1939 improvisation on "Body and Soul" when he introduced this number as "the moment of truth" for tenor players -- and then proceeded, in dry and virtuosic ways quite unlike Hawkins, to place his own claim on it.
Oddly enough it was another, contrasting tenor that provided a high point early in the program. The Mel Lewis band had framed a haunting, dissonant frame for Zoot Sims' solo on "Willow Weep for Me." Quiet, unostentatious, but always warm, pulsing, and inventive, Mr. Sims was left alone at one point with eloquent string bass accompaniment.
It was a succinct compendium of what can make jazz classic.