VOGUE! When Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry weren’t singing with the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, they were providing the appropriate theatrics.
For years, critics used to beat up the Newport Jazz Festival for not having enough jazz. Headliners from the worlds of soul, R&B, and blues rounded out the line-ups: B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, and Natalie Cole (not to mention the bad-old '70s, when Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers made the scene).
Impresario George Wein's answer was always: "You can't have a festival without people."
>> PHOTOS: Esperanza Spalding, Wynton Marsalis & more at Newport Jazz Fest <<
But since the festival turned 50 in 2004, Wein, now 85, has grown to see Newport as the heart of his legacy, and the bookings have been ever-more jazz centric. At this year's edition, there was very little you couldn't call jazz — maybe Afropop star Angelique Kidjo or, if you were being especially churlish, New Orleans trombonist and trumpeter Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, with his funk-heavy set. And, oh yeah, the cabaret star Michael Feinstein, who officially opened the festival Friday night at the International Tennis Hall of Fame at the Newport Casino with Wynton Marsalis.
The festival (which, along with its sister folk festival, is now a nonprofit) had headliners, but none with blockbuster popularity. In other words, no Wayne and Herbie, no Chick Corea, no Chris Botti, no Diana Krall or Tony Bennett. Jazz bookers (and live music promoters in general) are always fretting about the lack of a "next generation of headliners." This year, perhaps for lack of other options, Wein and his crew were presenting that generation — one they helped create.
Yes, there was Andrews (a growing tour phenomenon and a star at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which Wein also produces), and Kidjo and Wynton. The other names who played the big harbor-facing Fort Stage (one of three at the fest) were pianist Hiromi, violinist Regina Carter, pianist Michel Camilo, guitarist Al Di Meola, the Mingus Big Band, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, and the collective band James Farm, featuring Joshua Redman. Young celebrity bassist-singer-composer Esperanza Spalding, meanwhile, played a set each day on the festival's Quad Stage.
These are all popular acts, but none of them are slam-dunks in terms of ticket sales; certainly none guaranteed the sell-out crowd that the Decemberists brought the previous weekend to the folk fest. It didn't look like this jazz festival was going to come anywhere near that success. "Two weeks ago," one insider told me, "ticket sales were sucking wind."
But surprise — Saturday drew 7500, as close to the 11,000 capacity as the jazz fest usually gets at Fort Adams State Park. The Friday-night show at the Newport Casino (granted, a more conventional pop concert, for a more conventional Newport social crowd) sold 3300 with nothing left but obstructed-view seats. And Sunday, despite dire predictions of day-long bad weather and, in fact, downpours that didn't abate until after 1 pm, sold another 5000.