How do you keep a 60-year-old summer music festival up, running, and vital?
Well, one way is to run a promotional anniversary tour in February. At least, that’s what the Newport Jazz Festival is doing.
The festival’s producers have mounted a 21-date tour with a band of all-stars, under the name “Newport Jazz Festival: NOW 60,” fronted by saxophonist and clarinetist Anat Cohen. Their second stop is next Thursday for a Celebrity Series of Boston concert at Berklee Performance Center. The band will also include singer Karrin Allyson, trumpeter Randy Brecker, guitarist Mark Whitfield, pianist Peter Martin, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Clarence Penn.
Although this is not a unit of marquee “big names” (no Pat Metheny, Joe Lovano, or Esperanza Spalding), it is a formidable group, and reminiscent of the kind of casual Newport All-Stars bands that festival producer George Wein, 88, used to lead. But whereas the old George Wein Newport All-Stars focused on the blues, standards, and swing that Wein the jazz pianist liked to play, this band has a different agenda.
“I felt very strongly that coming into this 60th-anniversary festival, we needed to make sure that the band not only represented the tradition of Newport, but that it is a forward-thinking, contemporary ensemble that would play music reflective of what’s happening in jazz and particularly global music today,” says Danny Melnick, 46, associate producer of the Newport Jazz Festival as well as producer of the “NOW 60” tour. To that end he looked for a band that could draw from a vast repertoire of material from the entire history of the festival as well as bring in original material and arrangements.
Cohen, Melnick says, “is the perfect person to be the leader of this band, because she is steeped in deep tradition and she also is totally into what’s happening today in terms of Brazilian music, Gypsy music, Latin music. . . . This is a woman who can jam with anybody.”
Cohen first drew Wein’s attention when he saw her perform in duet with his old friend and Newport All-Stars bandmate, the guitarist Howard Alden, at a Sidney Bechet Society concert in New York in 2008. “It was the joy she projected while she was playing,” Wein says on the phone from his New York office. “She was reaching out through her music. She just creates a feeling of joy.” He immediately asked her to join him for a show in Switzerland. She played the Newport Festival that summer and has been back, playing in one configuration or another, ever since.
The Israeli-born, Berklee-educated Cohen remembers being enraptured by the idea of the Newport Jazz Festival ever since she saw the festival documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” as a high school student in Tel Aviv. “When you watch ‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day,’ ” Cohen tells me, “you get a sense of the audience and how everybody is part of the music — musicians, audience. And that’s the feeling you get when you’re in Newport.”
As for the repertoire, Cohen says, “Knowing George, especially now, he wants musicians to play the music that they hear. He doesn’t want them to play what other people have done already.” Echoing Melnick’s point about diversity, she says that Allyson is an asset to the Newport NOW 60 band because she not only knows diverse repertoire, but also can sing in many languages. “Calling it ‘Newport NOW 60’ means jazz is alive, people are creating music — whether you want to call it jazz or not jazz, that’s a whole different question.”
That “whole other question” recalls the days when R&B and pop were as much a part of the Festival as “jazz.” But since the its 50th anniversary, and especially since being reestablished as part of the nonprofit Newport Festivals Foundation in 2011 (which includes the Newport Folk Festival), the focus has been more on the diversity in the jazz world. This year the festival (Aug. 1-3) has added Friday as another full day to the usual weekend schedule at Fort Adams State Park, focusing on emerging and cutting-edge artists. These include veteran provocateur John Zorn along with younger players like rootsy singer-pianist Jon Batiste, big band composer Darcy James Argue, singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, saxophonists Miguel Zenón and Rudresh Mahanthappa, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, and the bands Snarky Puppy and Mostly Other People Do the Killing. When we talked, Wein had just added Margot Bingham, whom he had seen singing on the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.”
Wein and right-hand man Melnick are banking that programming these artists along with such established stars as Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, Gary Burton, and Dr. John as well as the Newport NOW 60 band will keep the festival vital and relevant.
“The mission of the festival,” Wein says, “is to present different kinds of music. Jazz is a music from ‘j’ to ‘z,’ as I call it. If we don’t create a stage for this energy that is coming out of young people who are playing music, the music is going to die. Or it’s going to become a museum piece. That is not what you want. You want a public to come along with what is happening with the young minds that are creating this music.”