Essay From Newport

Nov. 20, 2014

Essay from Newport

Important Lessons Learned at the Newport Jazz Festival

Brian Torff

I had the honor of playing the Newport Jazz Festival for the first time this past August of 2014. The festival turned sixty this year. It is the first and oldest of all the American jazz festivals and arguably the most prestigious. I was performing with the Django Reinhardt All-Stars, an NPR field recording link can be found at http://www.npr.org/event/music/342167061/the-fastest-fingers-at-the-festival-for-django-reinhardt.

I was able to hear some great bands before our Sunday afternoon final performance of the festival. Everyone was top level as you would expect, but I noticed something that has stayed with me. I found that quite a few of the groups were playing above the audience, not to the audience. There seemed to be a lack of communication. As one person said to me, “They’re not playing festival music.” I think he was right. There was a dedicated audience who had braved a rainy weekend and wanted to not only hear great jazz, they wanted to feel good, maybe even uplifted.

This has been a problem in jazz since the bop era-the imbalance of being a pandering entertainer as opposed to being a serious artist who demands the audience give quiet respect. They are two extremes that get caught in a futile debate about what jazz really is. It is an argument that no one can win.

The good news is there is a middle-ground of new bands that play high caliber music yet make sure they connect with the audience. This communication is clearly important in their musical approach and conception. If jazz is to not only survive but thrive we are going to need to think about this.

This may explain my approach to New Duke. We play Duke Ellington’s music but fearlessly perform mashups with Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, James Brown, The Cream, ska, reggae, and whatever else I can throw in the gumbo. I see no reason not to do this, it is the music of my early years as a young musician and fan. The possibilities are endless.

As I walked out of the muddy fields of Fort Adams Park in Newport, I felt the presence of the past giants who had once played there.

They followed their own vision, now we must follow ours.