The 2012 Newport Jazz Festival

As the world of jazz continues to grow generations of new voices, the festival continues to introduce them front and center alongside the stalwarts.

In my house, there is an ongoing debate about how long we’ve actually lived in Rhode Island. Perhaps it’s because we hadn’t figured it would last more than a year—our family being somewhat nomadic. But we know it’s more than five, and less than ten. The negotiations about exactly how long generally are based on the time stamps of various events and activities that we’ve attended. It’s always a bit surprising how long the list has become. Yet for the many things Rhode Island has offered us over these mystery years, it is with some embarrassment that I confess that this was my first year going to the Newport Jazz Festival.

Although the folk festival has gotten the lion’s share of the attention of late, I will propose that the jazz festival is in fact Rhode Island’s most important musical treasure. Its Newport roots date back to 1954 (with a slight detour when it was exiled to New York in the 1970s), and has since showcased every important voice in jazz. Billie Holiday. Thelonious Monk. John Coltrane. Miles Davis. Ella Fitzgerald. Wynton Marsalis. (I stop here, as the list would fill up the balance of my space.) But what is so critical—and frankly due to willful stubbornness by its longtime impresario George Wein—is that the Newport Jazz Festival is not a living history village. As the world of jazz continues to grow generations of new voices, the festival continues to introduce them front and center alongside the stalwarts, ensuring that the legacy of the art form remains vibrant and healthy.

That mixture certainly was evident this year, starting with the opening Friday night concert at the Tennis Hall of Fame. In the evening’s nod to the tradition of New Orleans jazz, the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band shared the bill with the inimitable Dr. John. Yet quietly sandwiched between them was Jonathan Batiste, a young pianist whose solo performance absolutely commanded the grounds for about twenty minutes. Frankly, the only trouble with Batiste’s part of the show was that it wasn’t long enough.

Moving out to Fort Adams, the balance of the weekend followed suit. While there were stalwarts such as Jack DeJohnette, Dianne Reeves and Pat Metheny, voices of the current generation (such as Miguel Zenon, the 3 Cohens and Jason Moran, to name a few) were busy solidifying their places as future legends. Elsewhere, influencers were colliding with the influenced on the same stages, such as the masterful guitarist Bill Frisell joining the avant-garde trio The Bad Plus on the Quad stage for a full set, just hours after Frisell had performed his interpretations of the John Lennon songbook from the main Fort Stage.

But here’s my second confession: I’ve had an on-again/off-again relationship with jazz. There have been periods of my life when I found it to be incredibly inspiring, a musical form that didn’t just speak to me, but somehow spoke for me. But there have been other periods of my life when it has seemed unbearable and impenetrable. And in those off periods, I had lost touch with what was happening in the genre, making me feel lost and somewhat of an outsider. I admit my shortcomings in being current with the newer names or the current trends. And I admit being apprehensive about even coming to the Newport Jazz Festival, not convinced that I would understand and/or appreciate the music. But walking into Fort Adams, the wail of a saxophone sailed over the stone walls, while a walking bass line snuck along the dusty paths beside the Harbor Stage. Just hearing that put me at ease. I remembered that jazz is not the monolith to which we sometimes ascribe it. Nor is it all one thing. Moving from stage to stage, one can go from big band swing to bebop to Afro-Cuban to blues to funk; eventually you find the voices that speak to you. But perhaps most important is that not only is jazz a true American art form, but it is one that’s ever evolving, and one that needs to be paid attention to; and, like any art form, one that can be appreciated on many levels, but with some study can command an even deeper meaning and experience.

In brief, this year’s Newport Jazz Festival continued to prove that jazz is not a relic. It’s constantly transforming and adapting to the sensibilities of those that come to it, while always honoring what came before; and people of Rhode Island, this is happening at your fingertips, every summer. All I can tell you is that attending the Newport Jazz Festival is a lovely way to spend a summer weekend for the most casual fan to the most ardent. Believe me, you don’t want to wake up one day counting the years, only to realize that the jazz festival is the one thing you’ve missed.

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