Newport Jazz Festival: It’s a lively show of appreciation

01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, August 8, 2010

By RICK MASSIMO

NEWPORT — It was 50 years ago this summer that violence broke out around the Newport Jazz Festival, leading eventually to a schism between the festival and the city that resulted in the expulsion of both the jazz and folk festivals.

In reality, that’s been water under the proverbial bridge for decades. On Saturday at Fort Adams the first full day of the CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival, it became official: In the early afternoon, Mayor Jeanne Napolitano appeared with festival impresario George Wein and proclaimed Saturday George Wein Day in Newport.

Wein “has brought more joy and sunshine to the citizens and visitors of Newport than anyone else,” Napolitano said from the stage to the crowd of 5,500.

“I can’t say how much it means to me,” Wein said in accepting the proclamation, also remembering the 50-year-old “incidents referred to as riots. From where I was, I saw no riots. We were playing music in the park.”

Four Newport police officers, Bob Murphy, Jack Taylor, William “Cub” Costello and Charlie Oxx, who were there in 1960 were also honored. Police Chief Michael McKenna said he appreciated the gesture, adding that “we hope the festival stays another 50 years.” Murphy said afterward that he was glad to get the appreciation — “usually it’s the other way around.”

The reconciliation was a mutual thing, Wein and Napolitano said. “We learned the festival doesn’t run independent of the city” regarding scheduling and crowd control, Wein said from the stage, and Napolitano added later that “there has been a change of attitude” in the city toward tourist events over the years.

All that said, there was music Saturday, and plenty of it.

Pianist-singer Jamie Cullum headlined the main stage, and his set list was largely taken from Friday night’s headlining show, with major exceptions being a version of “If I Ruled the World” that was “run through a Portishead blender,” and his early hit “All At Sea.” At the end of “Mixtape” Cullum collapsed off the back of his piano bench in mock exhaustion that might not have been mock; he spent the day interviewing artists for his BBC radio show, and more than an hour after his set he was still working on the show.
The early going was dominated by big bands bringing to life the unique visions of unique composers, with the 42-member Jazz Mafia’s Brass, Bows and Beats leading the way on the main stage, mixing jazz, rap, beat-boxing, poetry and more, with Latin percussion and violin solos thrown in to boot. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society was full of odd-time pulses, modal song structures and sonic touches such as distorted guitar and echoing cajón (on “Phobos,” before which Argue advised the audience to think of “fear and destruction”). And Maria Schneider’s Jazz Orchestra was all over the map, playing long, compositions that were symphonic in their linearity and complexity.

From there, the jazz became more conventional but still high class: Wein and The Newport All-Stars, a pickup group of players from other bands at the festival, swung smoothly on the third stage (the highlight being guitarist Howard Alden’s and clarinetist Anat Cohen’s duet on “Shreveport Stomp”). On the main stage, Ahmad Jamal and Chick Corea both turned in sets of sleek, classic piano jazz.

The second stage was devoted to hot jazz in the afternoon, with Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing and The Julian Lage Group. (Lage also played with the O’Connor group.) Each used choppy, speedy acoustic guitars and fiddles to full effect. Later, saxophonist Harry Allen’s Trio La Paz took Latin jazz from sleepy sambas to inspired banging and clanging, and Cohen led her own group with clarinet that was alternately powerful in tone and kaleidoscopic in speed.

And on a day when history was remembered, the students from Birds: Kids to Newport made their second annual field trip to the festival, getting a chance to hang backstage with members of The Jazz Mafia, listening to horn players trade licks and jokes and get to know them close up.

Later, as the kids milled about, former Providence Schools Supt. Robert DeRobbio, of Jazz Is a Rainbow, the group that runs the Birds program, said, “The history of the United States is built on music as much as wars or politics.” Mike Palter, also of Jazz Is a Rainbow, agreed: “If we don’t bring them, there ain’t gonna be a jazz festival.”

Aly Lo, 4, of Barrington, got a jolt of his own power when he blew into Jazz Mafia saxophonist Joe Cohen’s horn. He was spellbound by the whole experience, but his father, Abdou, pronounced the experience “amazing. … We never had this chance before.” Cohen looked at the kids and said, “This is the future.”

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