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Jazz Festivals

excerpted from Jazz: A History of America's Music

A Parisian Showdown

Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection

In May 1949, a delegation of American musicians landed in Paris for one of the first international jazz festivals ever held anywhere. Sidney Bechet was the best known to French fans, but Charlie Parker had been invited as well. There continued to be dark murmurings in the jazz press that traditional and bebop musicians were mortal enemies. Bechet had told an interviewer that bebop was already "as dead as Abraham Lincoln," and he and Parker had only recently been pitted against each other in a broadcast Battle of Music, advertised as a "showdown" by its organizer, the writer Rudi Blesh. In fact, they got along fine, once Bechet figured out how to let out Parker's marijuana smoke. Not given to compliments, he nevertheless told Parker how much he admired "those phrases you make," and in the jam session that ended the final day of the festival, these two masters — the white-haired New Orleans pioneer and the 29-year-old architect of bebop — found instant common ground in the blues, the music that was at the heart of everything either man ever played.

Bechet's appearance at the festival marked a triumphant return to the country from which he'd been exiled 20 years before, and he was so well received that he eventually decided to settle in Paris permanently, becoming a revered elder statesman of jazz, known to his legion of admirers as Sidney Nationale. To his surprise and pleasure, Charlie Parker, too, found himself a hero to the French, hailed as a worthy successor to Bechet, Armstrong, and Ellington, sought out by Jean-Paul Sartre and other intellectuals, and treated for the first time in his life not as a performer but as an artist.

A Coming Together

Newport, Rhode Island, was a seaside town of mansions and green sloping lawns, the summer retreat of some of the East Coast's wealthiest old families and about as far from the places where jazz began as it was possible to get. In July 1954, two local jazz lovers, Elaine and Louis Lorillard, came up with the idea of the festival, but impresario George Wein made it happen. "I felt that jazz could use a coming together," Wein remembered. "Economically, jazz musicians could not draw large crowds as individuals, not since the big band days. Jazz had become club music. Jazz musicians needed a festival. By bringing many groups together we could draw many kinds of jazz fans. It became a great source of public relations for the music. People wrote about festivals because they were happenings. They were important events, successful from the start."

Wein insisted that every kind of musician be invited. Jazz should be a family affair, he said. Everyone who played it well should be welcome. Eddie Condon's Chicagoans were asked to come. So was Dizzy Gillespie. Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, Pee Wee Russell, and Stan Getz were all going to be there. Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins agreed to appear as well — though Eldridge couldn't resist kidding his old friend about playing under a tent again after nearly 40 years on the road.

"I knew all the artists that were popular in New England," explained Wein. "I knew who'd draw people; I knew all the fans because jazz was a pretty tight community at the time. I figured if I put a show together with enough of the right musicians, people would go to Newport to see them ... and they did."

It Changed His Life

In 1955, Miles Davis decided that he wanted to be part of the Newport Jazz Festival, too. "I hadn't thought of using Miles," Wein recalled, "because Miles was difficult. You'd call him and he'd say, 'Aw, I don't know if I want to do that.' I knew him. He'd worked in my club and we weren't that friendly, and he treated me like he treated everybody else." But they saw one another in New York that spring and Davis asked, "You gonna have that jazz festival up in Newport?" "Yeah, Miles," Wein replied. "You can't have a jazz festival without me," Davis said.

Wein eventually agreed. Davis would appear on the final night with an all-star group of modernists: Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay. "It was a difficult festival because our sound system wasn't very good," Wein recalled. "But Miles put his [muted] horn right in the microphone and the only thing that came through the whole festival was his playing 'Round Midnight. It was so beautiful that everybody wrote about it. I mean, it changed his whole life. And all I can remember when he came off is he said to me," Tell Monk he plays the wrong changes on 'Round Midnight." "Lots of luck," I said. "Miles, he wrote the song, what do you want from him?"

Davis' soft, fragile-sounding solo turned out to be the highlight of the weekend. The crowd stood to cheer him. On the strength of the Newport performance and his recent spate of extraordinary records, he won first place among trumpet players in the annual Down Beat Critic's Poll, nosing out Dizzy Gillespie. Davis professed to be surprised at all the fuss: "You'd think I'd been on the moon. What are they talking about? I just played the way I always played."

Newport '56: The Duke is Born

Despite his near universal fame, by the mid-1950's, Duke Ellington was in trouble. Some of his finest musicians had left him. Rumors flew that he could no longer afford to stay on the road. He admitted to a reporter that "our band is operating at a loss now." In the summer of 1955, he found himself playing his old tunes for an ice show at the Aquacade in Flushing, New York.

Then, in July 1956, Wein invited him to appear at the third Newport Jazz Festival. Ellington saw the festival as a chance to reinvigorate his career, and he did something he had never done: he gave a pep talk to his men before they went on stage.

Ellington had put together a piece called The Newport Festival Suite. It went over well enough with the audience, but as it came to a close, people began heading for the parking lot. Ellington called for one of his old standbys, Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. People stopped, listened, and hurried back to their seats. Then tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves began to play.

Wein recalled, "People sat in reserved seats normally, and then they sat and watched the concert, and once in a while they'd stand up and cheer and give a standing ovation. But a woman started to dance when, when Ellington had Paul Gonsalves playing... his tenor solo. And Duke saw this woman dance, everybody crowded around to see the dancing of this woman, a blond woman from New Bedford. She was quite attractive, it really took hold and Ellington saw this thing happening, and he just kept Paul Gonsalves playing."

Gonsalves dug in, one furious chorus following another. The audience became so enthusiastic that George Wein, afraid of a riot, began frantically signaling Ellington to cut the number short. But Ellington refused to stop Gonsalves. Gonsalves went on playing for 27 choruses. The crowd demanded four encores. A record of the concert sold hundreds of thousands of copies, more than any other record Duke Ellington ever made.

"Every time I saw Duke after that," said Wein, "he would be talking about the introduction of ... The Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, he would say, 'I was born at Newport in 1956.'"

Jazz Festivals

Jazz festivals continue to play an important, vital role in jazz, helping to keep the music fresh and alive, welcoming new talents, and providing venues for different generations and schools of musicians to come together. There are jazz festivals all over the world, and many of them have web sites. There is a fairly good list on Yahoo at:

The Monterey Jazz Festival
Since 1958, when Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and other jazz legends took the stage for the first event, the Monterey Jazz Festival has graced its attendees with many of the world's greatest jazz talents.

Montreux Jazz Festival
The festival, held in Montreux, Switzerland features many jazz performers.

Select Other Festivals

Copenhagen Jazz Festival

Guinness Jazz Festival

Glemorangie Glascow Jazz Festival