Newport Jazz Festival: Still Best

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Not only is the Newport Jazz Festival the oldest one around, it’s still the best. First, there’s its magical, seacoast setting at Fort Adams State Park, which offers a panoramic view of scenic Newport Harbor. So, besides soaking up all the music, you get a chance to inhale some fresh ocean air and to watch the flotilla of pleasure craft anchored nearby to enjoy the sounds.

Not that this reporter exactly had any time to appreciate the surroundings, given that the festival featured a trio of stages on which the concerts often overlapped. For instance, on Saturday, the Wynton Marsalis Quintet appeared under the main tent at the same time that a trio featuring bassist Stanley Clarke, banjoist Bela Fleck and violinist Jean Luc Ponty played at what was called the pavilion. And, on Sunday, saxophonist Joshua Redman was at one venue, while vibraphonist Gary
Burton was simultaneously on another, and guitarist Larry Coryell was on the third.

Compromises simply have to be made when covering such an all-day concert chock-filled with a parade of jazz greats. Armed with my trusty tape recorder, I found myself making the rounds, rushing around among the sites, trying to catch a few tunes between conducting interviews with icons. What’s funny is that I sometimes found the artists impatient with me, but for a surprising reason. They were very eager to go see somebody else play. For instance, Larry Coryell after just finishing his own superb set, agreed to talk to me as long as we could stroll over to another tent. On the way, I asked him if he remembered opening for Led Zeppelin in the Seventies, and playing even louder than the heavy metal band. “F*ck yeah!� he responded, frankly, before launching into an explanation of what he was trying to do musically at the time.

This meant that fans really didn’t need a backstage pass for access to their idols. Among others I did manage to corner were pianist McCoy Tyner, Bela Fleck, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (son of John), Stanley Clarke, and Joshua Redman. And my chats with them were valuable enough to be the subject of separate upcoming articles.

Suffice to say, for now, that never have I had so much fun attending or covering a concert. The Newport Jazz Festival has somehow managed to preserve its special, mellow atmosphere, one often not found in other such gathering, quite frankly, in the wake of 9-11. Although each bag was carefully checked, people were allowed to bring in food and non-alcoholic beverages. This absence of paranoia helped set a relaxed tone among the thousands in the audience, radiating out as a spirit of cooperation and friendliness which turned the gathering into one big, happy family. My guess is that the spirituality of the genre of music, the beauty of the locale and the blessing of practically perfect weather all conspired to make for an unforgettable weekend. Let’s not forget the significant contributions of the event’s organizers, Sue Auclair and David Foster, whose brilliant planning anticipated every eventuality, from seemingly insignificant minutiae to grand-scale details.

If you are a jazz fan yet to enjoy Newport, please pencil this festival in for next year. And plan to be entertained by the tunes, enchanted by the backdrop, to make new friends, to catch up with old ones, to take photos with a few legends, and, most importantly, to come away inspired and thoroughly rejuvenated by an uplifting experience.


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