Covering the bottom end - and the bottom line

Newport Jazz comes back with a bang
By JON GARELICK  |  August 14, 2009

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SHOCKER: The Vandermark 5 had no trouble commanding the HarborStage with their anthemic skronk.

The biggest news made by the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals the past two weekends was that they happened at all. For those of you who've been living outside the rock from under which jazz fans see the world: in 2007, venerable Newport-fest impresario George Wein, now 83, decided to sell his company, Festival Productions, to upstart Festival Network. The 2008 shows came off, but then rumors began to surface that Festival Network was in trouble. The state terminated its license to Fort Adams State Park for 2009. Then Wein's sponsor of 24 years, JVC, pulled its support. The JVC–New York Jazz Festival, which had been created by Wein, was scuttled entirely. In January — very late to be booking a summer festival — Wein decided that the show must go on. He'd sold the names of the festivals, so he came back with George Wein's Folk Festival 50 and George Wein's Jazz Festival 55.

Click here to see more photos from the Newport Jazz Festival, 2009
Or, as he explained about the business problems from the Fort Adams Stage at the Jazz Festival this past Saturday: "They ran out of money or something." Ensuring the security of the festivals into next year was CareFusion, a health-care company that came on board at the last minute as a title sponsor.

Okay, business done and done. Perhaps even better news was that both festivals were artistic successes. The Folk Festival booked everyone from Joan Baez and Pete Seeger to the Decemberists and Bon Iver. The Jazz Fest covered the mainstream with Dave Brubeck and Tony Bennett, the avant-garde with Charles Gayle and the Vandermark 5, and their pop cred with Mos Def. Not bad.

"This is the first US festival that has invited us to play our own music," Vandermark told the crowd at the Harbor Stage on Saturday, after saying that it was an "absolute shock" for the band to be at Newport. He thanked Wein, who listened intently to their set from the side of the stage.

Newport offers a chance to test not only jazz's overall economy (as in, who's going to pay for it) but also æsthetic economies of scale. Can intimate, often abstract, instrumental music project to the cheap seats — or in this case, the beach chairs under open sky way out by the water on the expanse in front of the big Fort Adams Stage? Does it still mean anything if it does? For more "jazz-sized" venues, the festival has the open tents of the Harbor Stage (about 450 seats plus standing-room overflow) and the Waterside Stage (150 seats plus overflow). And the range of fans tends to be broad as well — twentysomethings content to sunbath and nap all day for the privilege of catching Saturday closing act Mos Def, middle-aged African-American men who wear "Trane" T-shirts and bring their wives and daughters to the show.

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