Publication: Boston Herald
Author: Bob Young
The jazz festival that almost didn’t happen is shaping up to be one of the hippest outdoor events of the summer.
Credit octogenarian George Wein not only with making sure this weekend’s 55th annual Newport, R.I., fest takes place, but with infusing it with a healthy dose of new blood and fresh ideas.
“I’m no younger today than I was yesterday, but I’m still in there punching,” said the festival’s year-old founder.
Renamed and reinvigorated this year, the three-day CareFusion Jazz Festival 55 kicks off Friday night at the International Tennis Hall of Fame with headliner Chaka Khan and continues outdoors on Saturday and Sunday at Fort Adams State Park.
Back in December, it looked like there might not be any Newport festival this summer, including the folk festival, which, thanks to Wein, proved a star-studded musical success last weekend. The previous presenter of both events, Festival Network, hadn’t come up with the dough to pay last year’s bills. Wein, who sold his production company to Festival Network in 2008, came out of retirement and personally came up with the funds to make the festivals a reality. Last month, he got a lifeline when a new health care organization, CareFusion, stepped in to sponsor this weekend’s event, which features such marquee names as Dave Brubeck, Tony Bennett, Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis and rapper Mos Def as well as up-and-comers including Claudia Acuña, Hiromi, Miguel Zenón and Esperanza Spalding.
“You have to have a certain balance to the festival by mixing established and legendary names with younger names,” Newton native Wein said by phone from his home in New York. “This year, we have a lot of new names that the general public doesn’t know that much about. But brilliant young musicians like Miguel Zenón are the future of jazz. If you don’t expose them to the general audience, they’re going to stay as a cult.”
Taking programming risks has been part of Wein’s approach to the festival from the beginning.
“When we used to do the old festivals in Newport, there were certain artists like Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus and John Coltrane who at the time didn’t have great public appeal,” he said. “They’d play in the afternoon shows and in the evening we’d put on Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Eventually, the afternoon performers became the evening performers. That’s what we hope will happen with many of the second and third stage performers we have this year.”