Dispatch from the Newport Jazz Festival 2013

It’s a story that always starts in the same place – under the stars at the International Tennis Hall of Fame: opening night of the Newport Jazz Festival.

It’s a story that always starts in the same place – under the stars at the International Tennis Hall of Fame: opening night of the Newport Jazz Festival. This year, the fifty-ninth such iteration feels timeless, not nostalgic by any means, but a place in which the music swirls on a level that knows no era. It’s all about the feeling. The first act, the Bill Charlap Trio (later joined by vocalist Freddie Cole), kicks things off with standards that bounce through rolling and exciting grooves. Next up is Natalie Cole. Hers is a more polished show with back-up singers, synthesizers that simulate string sections and seemingly rehearsed patter. At her best, Cole uses sparse arrangements that take us out of the center court stadium and into smoke-filled nightclubs. At her least successful, she lands us onto the lido deck of a cruise ship with over-the-top arrangements that somehow seem dated compared to the best portions of the evening.

But with the weekend comes the real heart of the festival. Fort Adams State Park. Surrounded by the bay. The span of the Newport Bridge looking as though it were hand-placed by a crafty set designer. A setting that even a little morning rain can’t disrupt. And there, for two straight days, singing out from among the three stages, is a nexus of the past, present and future of this one true American art form. The music can be nervous. Soothing. Classic. Lush. Experimental. But there is always a common breath of spirit and instinct that collides with artisanship and craftsmanship. You can feel it coming through renowned veterans such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joshua Redman. You can feel it among budding sensations like Hiromi, Marcus Miller and the Esperanza Spalding Radio Music Society. And perhaps even more importantly, you can feel that melding of sprit and craft taking place with the exciting up-and-comers such as Jon Batiste and Stay Human, the Donny McCaslin Group and the Robert Glasper Experiment.

One note of interest: In announcing the festival’s new partnership with Natixis Global Assessment Management, founder and visionary of the Newport Jazz Fest, George Wein, noted that nearly 1,300 students were attending this year’s festival. And for anyone who fears the slow death of American culture vis-à-vis the slow fade in the interest of its higher art forms, standing among all these young students was a hopeful and refreshing sight. It was moving to see how engaged they were in the music. Heads bobbing. Bodies anticipating rhythmic shifts. Less interested in cataloging the personalities, and more focused on feeling the music. It was a sign that the complexity, intellectualism and visceral discoveries of the fine arts (be they literature, painting, photography, dance and/or jazz) can withstand the rage of over-simplification that seems to be making constant demands on the arts. The world of jazz owes quite a bit to George Wein’s stubbornness in ensuring that this artful music that has its imprimatur on our modern American cultural heritage is not relegated to a wing in a museum, but instead is something that will continue to grow and evolve. And it all plays out right before your very eyes at the Newport Jazz Festival. I can’t wait to see what is in store for next year’s sixtieth anniversary. All I know is that the story probably will start the same, and end up in places we’d never imagine.


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