Hitting the high notes

Five musicians on what the Newport Jazz Fest means to them
By PHILIP EIL  |  July 31, 2013

'AN EXCITING THING' Halvorson. [Photo by Peter Gannushkin]

There’s a tinge of sadness to conversations about this year’s Newport Jazz Festival. After all, it’s the first one since the loss of Dave Brubeck, that gentle goliath who had us dancing to strange rhythms — none more famous than the 5/4-time, buh-bap, buh-bap bada; buh-bap, buh-bap bada vamp that begins “Take Five” — for decades and decades.

A few months later brought the news that photographer Bert Stern had passed away, too. “Bert Stern, Elite Photographer Known for Images of Marilyn Monroe, Dies at 83” read the headline of his New York Times obit, but Rhode Islanders knew him as the man who filmed 1959’s breathtaking documentary, Jazz On a Summer’s Day. Clips of Louis Armstrong rasp-singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and other bits of the film — which should be required viewing in our schools — are still available on YouTube.

Speaking of YouTube, that’s the place to shake the funereal blues and bask in the mind-blowing array of talent that festival organizers are bringing to Fort Adams. Check out 34-year-old Japanese piano virtuoso Hiromi wailing so hard on Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” that you almost see smoke billowing from the strings. Or click “Play” on the smartphone-recorded videos of Jonathan Batiste’s impromptu, sax-tambourine-melodica jam sessions on subway trains as they hurtle under the streets of New York. This year’s festival might be a little misty-eyed, but it’s also going to be one hell of a good time.

We caught up with a few of the scheduled artists to hear what the festival means to them. The interviews have been edited and condensed.


NAME | Mary Halvorson


SHOWTIME | Saturday at 11:15 am with her quintet

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW | The Chicago Reader called her “probably the most original jazz guitarist to emerge this decade.”

WHAT SHE SAYS | I do have kind of a special relationship with the festival. I actually grew up outside of Boston [in Brookline, Massachusetts] and, when I was in high school, I used to go every year. I had a few friends who were into jazz and we would drive down, because my one friend . . . his parents had an old Checker cab, an old vintage car, and we used to drive down in that. We’d go the night before, camp out, we’d get in line at 6 in the morning, and try to get into a place to stand.

We would stay the whole time, hear everything from Maynard Ferguson’s big band to Diana Krall and . . . Sonny Rollins, one of those years. So [now] it’s sort of an exciting thing for me because, although I’ve never played there, it’s kind of the jazz festival that I grew up with.



NAME | Michel Camilo


SHOWTIME | Saturday at 12:35 pm with his sextet

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW | He has a Grammy, an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, guest stints with the LA and Copenhagen Philharmonic, and a piano scholarship named for him at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC. Oh yeah, and he’s played with Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, and Jaco Pastorius.

WHAT HE SAYS | I met [Newport Jazz Festival founder and promoter] George Wein — who became a very dear personal friend and mentor, as well — in 1988. So I could have possibly played at Newport in 1989, because that was the date of my first American release. And George Wein actually is the one that made it possible for me, because he heard me playing at the Blue Note up here in New York and he loved the music, he loved the repertoire, so he walked me into Sony Music and they signed me.

I was born in the Dominican Republic, so I always dreamed of playing the Newport Jazz Festival. And this became true. Now, over the years, I’ve played it many, many times. I’ve come back at least between seven and 10 times to the festival.

There’s always something new going on there . . . that I go and listen to: some new musician or some new style of music. All of us get influenced by each other. We all get to check out what’s going on . . . We all know how big [of a] responsibility [it is] to walk out on that stage where your peers are listening to you. That’s part of the experience, for us as performers. We know who’s listening and who’s listening is, I’d say, the world of jazz.

It’s like the granddaddy of all jazz festivals in the world. Now there are thousands of jazz festivals everywhere, but they are all looking up to Newport.


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