'As Long As They Want To Play': Newport Jazz At 60 Since its inception in 1954, the event has survived rainstorms, genre wars and a few near-riots. Producer George Wein says it survives for the same reason jazz does — the musicians love to perform.
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'As Long As They Want To Play': Newport Jazz At 60

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'As Long As They Want To Play': Newport Jazz At 60

'As Long As They Want To Play': Newport Jazz At 60

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Newport Jazz Festival is celebrating its 60th anniversary. For most of that time, it's guiding force has been producer George Wein, and he's there again this year. Rhode Island Public Radio's Catherine Welch caught up with him to talk about the festival's history and its impact on jazz.

CATHERINE WELCH, BYLINE: George Wein remembers well that first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. It was pouring rain. He was being urged to call it off, but refused. The audience stayed, broke out their umbrellas, and the musicians played. The scene was caught by a photographer.

GEORGE WEIN: And that picture went out all over the world, of people sitting for five hours in the rain listening to jazz.

WELCH: And who wouldn't stay? The lineup included Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday. After its soggy debut, it wasn't long before the festival started making musical history. In 1956, Duke Ellington and his orchestra were playing the bandleader's composition "Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue" when Ellington turned to saxophonist Paul Gonsalves for a solo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIMINUENDO AND CRESCENDO IN BLUE")

WELCH: Gonsalves blew for 27 choruses, turning the sit-down Newport audience into a surging crowd.

WEIN: Oh, yes. Oh, boy. We were sitting there, and you could just feel the excitement. And I was worried that maybe they were too excited 'cause the crowd, for the first time, had left their seats and was coming toward the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIMINUENDO AND CRESCENDO IN BLUE")

WELCH: The crowds actually did get too rowdy, and in 1961, the festival was canceled. IT resumed the next year, but audiences started to dwindle. As the decade wore on and musical tastes began to change, Wein added rock to line-up for the 1969 festival.

WEIN: We made the jazz festival into a rock festival, which was a big mistake on my part.

WELCH: Bands like Led Zeppelin drew an overflowing crowd to Newport, nearly causing another riot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We hope that you enjoy everything we do and that we were coming in the first place, so don't get any hassles about what we were going to do and what we weren't.

WELCH: Producer George Wein had a keen ear for what might sell. In 1959, when the folk boom was taking off, he launched the Newport Folk Festival. And over the years, he watched as taste shifted back and forth between the two events.

WEIN: Next thing we knew, the folk festival was surpassing the jazz festival. Then, when Bob Dylan went electric, the folk festival went down and the jazz festival was coming up again.

WELCH: The jazz festival left Newport for New York City in 1972 and returned nine years later. Wein eventually sold his festivals and went into semi-retirement, but couldn't stay away. Historian and jazz critic Nat Hentoff says, his old friend has made an important contribution.

NAT HENTOFF: By keeping the Newport Jazz Festival alive, George also, I think, had a lot to do to ignite festivals all over the world.

WELCH: There's now a foundation to take care of both Newport Festivals. Wein is not worried about their future, but he does contemplate the future of jazz. Sixty years ago, Wein says, the music was fighting for acceptance.

WEIN: But the difference now is we're looking for relevance in this age of pop culture. What is the relevance of jazz? It's not classical music. It's not pop culture. It's a culture of its own.

WELCH: It is a culture that will survive, says historian Nat Hentoff.

HENTOFF: It may not be a very popular form of music, but inevitably, it survives. And because of that, it has an impact, and when it does reach people, it's lasting. And they, in turn, will infect other people with that enthusiasm.

WELCH: For his part, Wein puts his faith in the musicians, who, this year, include jazz elder statesmen Ron Carter, Lee Konitz and Gary Burton, as well as younger musicians - among them, Iraqi American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, big-band leader Darcy James Argue and Indian American pianist Vijay Iyer.

WEIN: Jazz will go where musicians take it because they'll always want to play. And as long as they want to play, somebody's going to listen.

WELCH: Wherever the musicians take jazz, he hopes to be there. At 88 years old, Wein wants to be able to say he's producing the Newport Jazz Festival when he's 90. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch.

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