The Newport Jazz Festival is doubling down its bet on new music. Newport — the grandfather of all jazz festivals and, it could be argued, of the entire concept of the modern music festival — celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. To mark the event, the festival has expanded its usual weekend to three full days, including a Friday program that will focus entirely on what’s loosely termed “emerging artists.”
The Saturday and Sunday events will include their share of legendary jazz names (Gary Burton, Ron Carter, Lee Konitz), crossover stars (Bobby McFerrin, Dr. John, David Sanborn, Trombone Shorty), and breakthrough acts (Robert Glasper, Gregory Porter, Cécile McLorin Salvant). A Friday evening concert at the International Tennis Hall of Fame at the Newport Casino will feature Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. But the big news is Friday at Fort Adams State Park: an entire day of acts that have in the past been relegated to supporting roles on the festival’s second and third stages, with a centerpiece three-hour Masada Marathon organized by perpetual enfant terrible (and MacArthur Fellow) John Zorn, who turned 60 last September.
Newport Festival associate producer Danny Melnick remembers his marching orders regarding Zorn from Newport cofounder George Wein: “I want you to say to him, ‘It’s our 60th, it was your 60th — it’s about time.’ ”
The response from Zorn, says Melnick, was unequivocal. “He replied, basically, ‘Yeah, it is about time. I’m really into this. Thank you.’ ”
Zorn — whose projects have drawn on jazz, klezmer, classical music, film noir, and hardcore punk— is gathering nine acts for Newport. They extend from his Masada Quartet (with Zorn on alto sax, trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron) to the duo Malphas, with violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, to the electric-guitar-fronted Abraxas. All will be playing music written by Zorn especially for them.
Friday also includes McLorin Salvant, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society orchestra, saxophonist Miguel Zénon’s big band, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, keyboardist/vocalist Jon Batiste & Stay Human, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, the progressive fusion band Snarky Puppy, and the quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing (with special guests). With financial support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Argue, Mahanthappa, and Zénon will premiere new work.
This is as much a step back as a move forward for the festival. After its halcyon days, the profit-driven event began to lean heavily on rock and pop crossover with little for the hard-core jazz fan. That began to change around the festival’s 50th anniversary in 2004, and again following the sale of Wein’s Festival Productions in 2007 and the return to his control of the festival as a nonprofit in 2009.
“I want to preserve the festival after I’m gone,” says Wein, now 88, “If we don’t provide a stage for new artists, then where are we going?”
Both Wein and Melnick acknowledge the risk. “Quite honestly, I was very nervous about it,” says Melnick, who also heads up his own company, Absolutely Live Entertainment. “But George felt super-strong about doing this. He felt that Newport has to do something to differentiate itself from other festivals, to show the audience, the artists, the media, and other producers that we care about these artists.”
A grant from the Rhode Island Foundation supports the third day of programming, and it’s hoped that specially priced student tickets will bolster attendance. (The festival’s presenting sponsor is Natixis Global Asset Management.) “The totality of the day is what it’s about,” Melnick says.
It also helps that Wein is still a voracious listener. The Newton native and Boston University grad was an aspiring jazz pianist before he decided that he wasn’t cut out for life as a performer. He began to book jazz acts and created the legendary Boston club Storyville in the ’50s. But he’s never given up playing, and this year he will again take the stage with an edition of his Newport All-Stars.
“I wasn’t a businessman going into jazz to make money,” says Wein of his early days. “I was a jazz lover and musician going into business to make money.”
He approached Zorn after seeing one of his Masada Marathons in New York last fall. Mahanthappa, who first played the festival in 2009, says that Wein e-mailed him after seeing the saxophonist play in a Dizzy Gillespie tribute band with Danilo Pérez (Pérez is also on this year’s Newport bill).
“I had an arrangement of ‘Salt Peanuts’ that was in some odd meter — 17 or something like that,” recalls Mahanthappa, “and I think he was just tickled by the piece and the way that it was presented.” He also liked Mahanthappa’s stage presence. “He said something like, ‘No one smiles in jazz anymore. No one laughs in jazz.’ ” And he said the words every jazz musician loves to hear: “I want to have you at Newport. What do you want to do?”
Despite his hands-on involvement, Wein disparages personal taste as a factor in his bookings. “The whole approach I have to music now is: Is there artistry in what [the musician] does, and does he do it well? And is he getting his message across? And if he does that, then I want to play him in my festival.”firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.