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Newport folk and jazz festivals canceled because of coronavirus fears

Fans look on during the first day of the 2019 Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, R.I.Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Last year, the Newport Folk Festival celebrated its 60th birthday, and the Newport Jazz Festival turned 65. This year, there will be no anniversary party. Both events have been canceled.

On Wednesday, because of ongoing concerns about gathering in a time of contagion, Jay Sweet, the executive producer of the Newport Festivals Foundation, announced that this summer’s shows, which were set to take place on the weekends of July 31 and Aug. 7, will not go on.

“I can’t see the future for the first time in a long time,” Sweet said. “My whole job is usually to project.”

For now, Sweet said, he has extended an invitation to all of the performers who were confirmed for this year’s festivals — among them Randy Newman, Nathaniel Rateliff, Norah Jones, and Wynton Marsalis — to appear in Newport next year.


“So far, every single one of them has said, ‘Tell us where and when,’ ” Sweet said.

While Sweet anguished in recent days about breaking the bad news to artists and fans, he relied on the wisdom of George Wein, the 94-year-old founding organizer of both festivals, who began grooming Sweet as his successor more than a decade ago. Through the years Wein has weathered controversies, financial woes, and intermittent hiatus.

“He said, ‘Listen, man, I’ve never had to face a pandemic, but I can tell you, the years after we faced adversity, when we survived, we were stronger for it,’ ” Sweet said. “It’s tough to see that right now. He’s been a rock for me.”

At her daily press conference Wednesday, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo addressed the prospect of large summer gatherings in the state.

“You are not going to be able to have that event in the state of Rhode Island this summer,” she said. It was a distressing message to have to deliver, she said: “My stomach is in a knot.”


Since taking over as executive producer, Sweet has reestablished the festivals under the umbrella of a nonprofit foundation, which provides year-round support for dozens of music education programs. As a nonprofit, Sweet said, the festivals had no ticket-refund policy. Understanding the hardships caused by the virus and the ensuing economic downturn, they will offer fans full refunds but will also “beg on our hands and knees to see if they’ll support us” by forgoing it.

“We’re putting the future of the festival in their hands,” Sweet said.

After a fallow period in the mid-2000s, Sweet helped revitalize the Newport Folk brand by expanding the definition of “folk” music to embrace Americana, classic country music, and roots rock ‘n’ roll. He brought in big-name surprise guests, from Roger Waters to Dolly Parton, and promoted the notion that the performers, attendees, and production team together constitute an extended folk “family.”

That idea is carrying the community through a tough time, Sweet said. The Festivals Foundation has created a musician relief fund, with an emphasis on artists who have previously played the folk or jazz festival, as well as Rhode Island-area musicians in need.

“We’re sitting on hundreds and hundreds of applications for relief,” he said. “I’ve only gotten to about 50 percent of them. Saving the festival is obviously a priority, but there are still people out there who need our help.”

In lieu of this year’s festivals, Sweet hopes to produce some special events, both on the weekends when the festivals would have occurred and later in the year. Some of those will be virtual; if possible, he said, he’d like to do a few live shows with small audiences.


“Ten people? Fifty? A hundred?” Sweet said. For now, he has no idea. In any case, it would be a far cry from the 10,000 or so who congregate in Fort Adams State Park each day of the Newport festival season, in a healthy year.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.