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And All That Newport Jazz

Explore the illustrious history and enduring legacy of the Newport Jazz Festival, spanning from its iconic beginnings with jazz legends like Louis Armstrong to its modern-day lineup featuring acclaimed artists such as Herbie Hancock and Jon Batiste.

Newport, Rhode Island. Photo by Nick Valinote

“If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know.” -Louis Armstrong

From New Orleans to Atlanta, many cities across the United States host jazz festivals at least once a year. Although Rhode Island may be one of the smallest states by area, the seaside town of Newport has earned itself the impressive reputation of being the “granddaddy of American music festivals.” Since 1954, Newport has attracted thousands of jazz enthusiasts grooving to complex and rhythmic chords. For three full days in July, the air is filled with sounds that epitomize jazz - the bluest of blues and the deepest soul.

In its early years, the Newport Jazz Festival touted headliners like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Since then, the festival has produced some unforgettable sessions like the Dave Brubeck Quartet who ended the 1971 show with their iconic, “Take Five.” In more recent years, new as well as established artists have graced the Newport stages with jazz greats like Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Diana Krall, and Jon Batiste. 

A Little History

 In 1954, the first festival in Newport offered live, outdoor-only performances by many jazz giants of the time including Billie Holiday.  Over 13,000 people attended that two-day event hailed as a huge success and destined to become an annual event in Newport for the next 17 years. Fast forward to 1972 when over 12,000 people on the adjacent hillside crashed the festival’s fences as Dionne Warwick performed, ironically, "What the World Needs Now Is Love." The rioters rushed the stages and equipment was burned and destroyed. Understandably, the Newport City Council revoked the festival’s license which caused the move to New York City for about eight years. 

In 1981, George Wein, one of the original founders of the festival, moved it back to Rhode Island to preserve the Newport legacy.  In addition, Wein missed having the festival held outdoors.  As a result, the Newport Jazz Festival has been held at the Fort Adams State Park in Rhode Island ever since.

Recording Opportunities

In addition to becoming a mecca for live concerts between the late 1950s and mid-1960s, the Newport Jazz Festival provided a deep well of opportunities for recording studios. According to Chuck Granata, producer and music historian, Newport “offered major record labels a rich, vibrant source of superb performances that were marketed to cool, sophisticated jazz-and-hi-fi enthusiasts.” For example, when Frank Sinatra appeared with the Basie band at Newport in 1965, Granata felt it was a “widely anticipated event, and helped blend pop and jazz together seamlessly.”

According to Granata, some of the most heralded albums during those years featured spectacular Newport jam sessions like Columbia Records’ “Ellington at Newport” with its iconic “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” (1956) and Verve’s “Count Basie at Newport” (1957) with its “…blistering, if imperfect “One O’clock Jump.” Granata elaborates on the recorded jam sessions and their impact on the music world, “All served to bring jazz from Newport to the masses, and cement its reputation as the ultimate setting for a wide range of jazz, big band, and gospel music’s foremost exponents.”

What’s Jamming for 2024?

 Scheduled for July 26-28, the 2024 festival promises three full days of jazz on four unique stages at Fort Adams State Park. Located on Newport Harbor, with panoramic views of the Newport Bridge, jazz fans will not only have a multi-day opportunity to enjoy the music, but they will also be part of the festival’s 70th-anniversary celebrations offering a variety of food options, artisan crafts, exhibits, and music, of course. Lots of music.

This year’s lineup for the Newport Jazz Festival includes notable performers such as Herbie Hancock, Jon Batiste, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Diana Krall, Charles Lloyd, Vijay Iyer, Big Freedia, DJ Pee Wee (aka Anderson Paak), Big Gigantic, and Alfa Mist.  

Rising jazz stars, adding a new and fresh note to the event, will also be featured at the festival this year.  Some of the up-and-coming talent lineup for 2024 includes names like Samara Joy, DOMi & JD Beck, Arooj Aftab, and Cautious Clay.

 The Newport Jazz Festival sells out quickly, so be sure to secure your tickets and hotel reservations as soon as possible. If you're traveling from South Jersey, plan to hit the road early, as traffic through New York and North Jersey can be heavy. You can choose to stay right in downtown Newport, where there are numerous hotels and bed and breakfasts available. Alternatively, consider accommodations in Middletown and Portsmouth, both conveniently located on the same side of the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge as Newport. The Newport area is stunning, with breathtaking views of Narragansett Bay.

 While in Newport, take advantage of the many sailing boats offering sunset cruises and sailing adventures suitable for all experience levels. Newport also boasts an array of seafood restaurants and local shopping options. This historic city was once the summer retreat for America's wealthiest families before the advent of air conditioning. Don't miss the opportunity to tour the opulent mansions such as The Breakers, The Elms, and Marble House. Adjacent to these mansions is the famous Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile path that offers spectacular views of the Rhode Island Sound.

 Additionally, there is ample public transportation from the main downtown parking garage to the festival. The Newport Jazz Festival is a fantastic reason to travel north and experience the charm and beauty of Newport and its surroundings. For more information, please visit the links below.