Newport Jazz Festival, 1960:The Year They Called the National Guard

You won’t catch me hating on the Newport Jazz Festival, of course! When I was a teenager, the festival on Rhode Island had a kind of magical aura of importance: on PBS I’d seen footage of Gil Evans playing there with Art Farmer:

… and listened time and again to John Coltrane and Archie Shepp’s New Thing at Newport:

… and Dizzy Gillespie’s big band recording At Newport:

… dozens and dozens of times.

(Seriously, in high school, I was baffled by how everyone was into music we all knew nobody would be listening to by 2002. My jam was Dizzy’s “Manteca,” plus this oldie–babes in armor with swords and spears! What’s not to like? It’s like 19th-century Teutonic Kill Bill!–and of course A Love Supreme, and this Mahavishnu Orchestra album (which I remember jamming on one lunchtime with a couple of buddies), and, okay, okay, that one album by The Cure, though that was more about my crush on the battiest girl in the school… er, anyway.)

But whaddaya know, while I’ve been taking a break from my novel for a couple of days (and projectile-extruding short stories that have been rolling around upstairs), I was looking at the history of the Newport Jazz Festival and it seems like the residents of that Rhode Island resort town in the 1950s actually weren’t crazy about the idea of their city hosting a jazz festival. Wikipedia tells the story:

Some in upper-class Newport were opposed to the festival. Jazz appreciation was not common within the established upper-class community. The festival was organized mostly by younger members of the elite group populating Newport. The festival brought crowds of commoners to Newport. Many were students who, in the absence of sufficient lodging, slept outdoors wherever they could, with or without tents. Newport was at first not accustomed to this. And, many of the musicians and their fans were African American. Racism too was a factor in Newport as it commonly was across the land during that era. Traffic gridlock and other contention near the downtown venue were legitimate concerns, and were raised.

Things seem to have come to a head in 1960 (same source as above):

In 1960 boisterous spectators created a major disturbance, and the National Guard was called to the scene. Word that the disturbances had meant the end of the festival, following the Sunday afternoon blues presentation headlined by Muddy Waters, reached poet Langston Hughes, who was in a meeting on the festival grounds. Hughes wrote an impromptu lyric, “Goodbye Newport Blues”, that he brought to the Muddy Waters band onstage, announcing their likewise impromptu musical performance of the piece himself, before pianist Otis Spann led the band and sang the Hughes poem.

The 1960 event was notable also for the presence of a rival jazz festival that took place at the Cliff Walk Manor Hotel, just a few blocks away. This was organized by musicians Charles Mingus and Max Roach in protest against the lower pay that the Newport festival offered jazz innovators in comparison with more mainstream performers; the fact that the innovators were mostly black and the mainstream performers mostly white was also an aggravating factor.

Yeah, they called in the freaking National Guard. Langston Hughes’ poem gets quoted in the contemporaneous (but sadly paywalled) Time Magazine article, though you can hear Muddy Waters sing it, as he did at the festival the day the cancellation was announced:

There was no Newport Jazz Festival in 1961–there was a sort of off-Newport knock-off, but it failed. The Festival came back in ’62, and stayed until the 70s, when it moved to NYC, and… well, you can read the rest for yourself. For me, the high point of the story is when they called the National Guard to Rhode Island to quell the madness of…

… a jazz festival.

Even accounting for the change in jazz’s reputation–the music was seen as subversive into in the 1950s, at least–it’s a pretty amazingly emblematic example of histrionic white racist panic. And, yeah, I have to admit that “histrionic white racist panic” + “Rhode Island” =  “H.P. Lovecraft” (in my head, anyway), but ol’ H.P. actually doesn’t have a place in this story as far as I can see, beyond a really vague riff on “The Color Out of Space.” Y’see, I actually started out thinking it over from a very different angle. You see, there are these two really interesting, and very contrary, stories about comets…

I’ll save that for tomorrow. (Edit: See here.) To hold you over till then, here’s the inimitable Duke Ellington with his big band at Newport in ’56. “We have prepared a new thing,” he says at the beginning of the video. For someone born in 1899, that cat was real hip in 1956:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *