Newport Jazz Festival

By David Walley

East Village Other, July 16, 1969

The Newport Jazz Festival of 1969, for all its touted performers, was a horrendous mismatch of tastes, emotions, life styles, and music. George Wein producer extraordinaire, not only made a heroic attempt to bring forth a selective representation of jazz musicians for public consumption, but he also tried to make his festival into a supergroupie’s dream by bringing together on one stage, though at separate times. the three most spectacular rock guitarists in England: Jeff Beck, Jimmy Paige, and Alvin Lee. The emphasis this year was on “heavy” as opposed to “relevant” music; names as opposed to styles. In the end, Wein’s efforts unbalanced the festival to the detriment of both Rock and Jazz. The results were disappointing.

Festivals are supposed to make money. Nobody questions that, but festivals must have some internal consistency, some rationale for putting acts on a stage besides money. It seems that in order to make money, “heavies” and big money “draws” should he liberally sprinkled throughout a festival weekend. If the selections are judicious, then the festival becomes an artistic as well as a financial success. If the selections are made without account to taste of the audience, the results are not so pleasing. But let’s take a closer look at Newport ’69.

George, Wein demonstrated a bad sense of timing and an even worse sense of showmanship when he attempted to fuse jazz with rock: evidently, he knew very little about rock music. On Friday night of the festival, for instance, Wein billed Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, Steve Marcus, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Roland Kirk Quartet and Jeff Beck. Despite the approximate “heaviness” of each group (except for BS&T – a shuck white honkey plastic soul hand no matter what John Wilson of the Times says), the concert was an artistic failure. Each group deserved much more that the 50 or so minutes it got.

There was just too much to take at one time. In a classic case of musical overkill, minds were wiped out under unrelenting waves of electric blues. And then to top it off, Roland Kirk and Jeff Beck played back to back at the end of the bill. That was fair to neither performer. From that moment on, there seemed to develop an antipathy between the rock and the jazz people at the festival.

Another problem with Newport was that the emphasis on the “scene” turned it into a sort of hypemeisters paradise and prevented it from becoming a genuine musical event. (Remember when festivals inspired, or were supposed to inspire, performers???)

“Making the scene” upset the performers. The audience, instead of wanting to have their perceptions changed about music, or at least stretched somewhat, preferred to sit back and let it happen on them. There was no real kinetic energy exchanged between those in the audience and those on the stage. Those who went to Newport consumed music as a commodity, like a hotdog. If anything, the performers were turned off by the audience. The quality of the music suffered from this.

Everything at Festival Field was rushed. It seemed as if George Wein was more concerned with the number of groups he could muster in four hours than with the music and diverse feelings which the music could evoke. Groups were given 50 minute sets to do their thing – not even enough time to work up a good sweat. This, coupled with the rather repressive atmosphere on the grounds, produced memorable flare-ups. The Mothers’ set on Saturday afternoon was 45 minutes long. Frank Zappa closed in the middle of a piece with “Goodbye” and stalked off the stage – was he pissed! George Wein, all through the Friday night concert, kept pleading for law and order and for everyone to cool it (kids were doing the almost normal freebie thing – sitting on fences trying to get in without paying, screaming and yelling from outside the festival grounds, and blowing a lot of smoke). It was all very heavy-handed fun.

Newport may have been a little sloppy in some areas, hut in others it was a positive disaster. The attempted union of jazz arid rock was supposed to be a marriage but was, in fact, nothing more than an uneasy cohabitation. Nevertheless, Wein could have found a way to make the idea work. One could see it in the crowds themselves (there were two distinct crowds at Newport – the jazz, and the rock-folk crowd). The jazz crowd dug Miles and Roland Kirk and were less impressed with the fiery, if sometimes meaningless riffs of Beck or Lee. The rock crowd was enthused by the pyrotechnics of the British bluesmen and, despite my own prejudice, overly enthusiastic for Blood, Sweat and Tears, a group which really didn’t do much of anything except pose for their fans – but that’s showbiz.

I guess. The rock people were less open to the jazz end of the festival. The whole weekend reminded me of the days when there used to be a song called “Yeah-BOO” – in which the major line was if you like it holler “Yeah” and if you don’t holler “Boo”. The whole idea of this type of a festival was to bring people together to introduce them to new forms but this as well was something lacking.

Newport could have been a wonderful way for rock and jazz people to get together and work out some sort of a truce, or if not a truce, then a working artistic and intellectual arrangement. Regrettably, the advertised jam sessions really didn’t come off as well as they could have. I think the musicians felt too uncomfortable to jam with each other. Certainly, the audience wouldn’t have known what to do if Roland Kirk jammed with Mother Frank (though that happened in Boston the month before and the crowds went wild at the Tea Party).[1]

Finally, it seemed that everyone was having trouble with the sound system at the festival. Friday night, “An Evening of Jazz-Rock” with the aforementioned BS&T, Beck, Ten Years After, everyone was having trouble with the sound. In fact, during the 2 days I was there, quite a few people messed up their amplifiers. Jeff Beck had it particularly nasty – Roland Kirk had just finished a mind-blowing set, and the crowd was sparked to life. The mood was uneasy at 12:30 when Beck walked out. There was almost nothing he could have done to recoup the edge since he was the closing act. Beck walked out on stage, plugged in and his amp went. Rod Stewart muttered quite audibly “So we’ve got shitty equipment again” and then Beck and Stewart stalked off stage until the situation was rectified. On Saturday evening, when Sly and the Family Stone played, their sound was weak and fuzzy. It should be evident to Wein that if he is going to produce rock as well as jazz, he should check into the technical end of production and find a sound system which can withstand high energy sound.

The Newport Jazz Festival could have been an artistic success if only. the promoter could have tried to make a fusion between the two styles instead of widening the divisions. If Wein ever decides to put rock with jazz next year, he should follow some suggestions: 1)discover the difference between a “heavy” and a “hype” band; 2) understand that commercial rock is just as insipid as commercial jazz; 3) give the musicians who do play more of a chance to develop their music instead of running an advanced level vaudeville show, 4) finally, understand that jazz and rock can co-exist provided there is enough room for both to work on the other. Perhaps the major fault of the Newport Jazz Festival was that the promoter hadn’t enough experience with rock music (the year before he said that rock music was nowhere and then ate his words).

Running a festival is hard work and Mr. Wein shouldn’t give up the ship. His intentions were honorable even if the desired results were not obtained. He has a year to lick his wounds and try again.

1. Roland Kirk and Frank Zappa jammed together on January 31 (4th Boston Globe Festival). Kirk had several gigs in May 1969 at the Boston Tea Party club (together with The Who and Joe Cocker), but there is no evidence that Zappa was there.

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