[Today: Jazztown, USA…]
The Newport Jazz festival kicks off tonight, and for the sixth year in a row, I’m on the ground in Newport, RI to enjoy the music. This is the season that Newport comes alive, as tourists pack shoulder to shoulder on Thames and Bellevue, taking in the scene and trying to beat the heat. August on the Eastern seaboard can be an adventure, with plenty of humidity and the epic thunder and lightning storms that come with it. But the dramatic weather doesn’t seem to dampen any spirits – walk down nearly any street in Newport this time of year, and you’re likely to hear the tinkling of glasses, the sound of laughter and a hint of cool Jazz, floating along on an ocean breeze.
Newport is a scenic, cozy little town of just under 30,000 residents. In addition to the National Tennis Hall Of Fame and the Naval War College, it features some of the most impressive, imposing mansions you’re likely to see anywhere in the states – huge gilded structures built by folks with names like Astor and Vanderbilt. This is a place of means, as evidenced by the yachts, schooners and catamarans that crowd Newport Harbor. When the Jazz Festival gets rolling at Fort Adams (a key naval position during the Revolutionary War), many of these boats crowd into Newport Bay to take in the music from the main stage, which is visible from the water. This aquatic audience is a party unto itself, as people sip drinks, splash around in the bay, and hose each other down with super soakers.
The organizers of this year’s festival have reportedly elected to move the main stage so that it won’t be visible from the water, so it remains to be seen if the extracurricular activities in Newport Bay will be in effect this year. But the Jazz Festival has evolved several times since its 1954 inception, and has experienced plenty of growing pains along the way. In 1971, festival organizers made a huge tactical error by inviting the Allman Brothers Band to play. Many more fans showed up than the festival was able to accommodate, and when a drunk mob burst through the gates and started a riot, it marked the beginning of a full decade that would see the festival exiled to New York.
Fortunately, Jazz returned to Newport in 1981, and has remained in its natural home ever since. Like the Kentucky Derby, the Newport Jazz Festival is a uniquely American event that owes its charm to the local flavor. If you’ve never attended, it’s possible that you’re missing something special…
Listen: Somethin’ Special
NPR is streaming this year’s festival, so you don’t have to miss any of the music.