Storied Newport Jazz Fest Thrives in the City by the Bay

Sun Ra Arkestra (Photo by Ben Houdijk)

Many things have changed during the 70 years since the Newport Jazz Festival began. The great grandfather of outdoor festivals first happened on July 17, 1954 at the Newport Tennis Hall of Fame. That night made musical history that would reverberate world wide. The musical engine that sang out to a crowd of nearly 13,000 music lovers made up of Newport’s A-list of socialites and jazz lovers was fueled by George Wein, a visionary musician, producer, and civil rights advocate along with the Lorillard family, a wealthy Newport couple, who were longtime jazz fans.

Wein, who owned the iconic Storyville Club, a Boston jazz landmark, scraped together a paltry $20,000 to produce the first two-day musical gamechanger.


Of course those were the days, long before staggering inflation, where a humble guy like Wein, who already was an established Boston jazz pianist, could — on a shoestring — put on a festival that would change the musical landscape forever.

It was a star-crossed relationship between Wein and the Lorillards in Newport. Consider the historical backdrop that made funding the first festival possible. While the average income was a measly $4,ooo annually, a gallon of gas was only twenty cents and the average working guy could buy a house for $20,000. Ticket prices to the first Newport Jazz Festival were between $3 and $5. Nowadays, you can’t even get a footlong sandwich for $5.

Wein, in his brilliance, created a niche those two nights, with the mesmerizing sounds of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the sophisticated king of swing, along with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, two female jazz vocalists who belong on the Mt. Rushmore of jazz.

The success of the Newport Jazz Festival was just the beginning of Wein’s fabled career.

Wein went on to create the New Orleans Heritage and Jazz Festival, set in New Orleans, the cradle of American jazz, as well as the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. For those readers who follow jazz, for many, many decades Europeans have craved jazz, which bolstered the careers of many American jazz acts, including Betty Carter and Eartha Kitt, two brilliant jazz vocalists.

Fast forward to the Newport Jazz Festival in the 21st century. Despite all the highs and lows over its seven decades, the festival has adapted to the times and achieved an impressive longevity. Although Wein passed away a few years back, the show goes on.

Whether it was changing venues or bringing in more mainstream rock acts, including the Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin, the festival grows and again will shine as it has for many years at the Fort Adams Park, a jaw dropping spot, at the entrance to Newport Harbor for some of the best international jazz this summer.

While tickets are selling fast, now is the time to get online and get them before they are sold out, which has been the tradition for many years.

This year’s lineup promises to be a primo weekend of amazing jazz stars, including Samara Joy, Sun Ra Arkestra, Legacy of Wayne Shorter, a founding member of the Crusaders, along with Stanley Clarke N-Forever, a founding member of fusion jazz and a bass guitar wizard. Another star not to be missed is funk-master Nile Rodgers and Chic. Rodgers has been a mainstay bandleader and funk music producer for decades.

The festival happens August 2 through August 4 and tickets can be purchased online only. Visit for tickets, along with the full daily lineup and other festival information.
As you find your spot at the jazz festival and pop open that first delicious beer, remember George Wein smiling down from Jazz Heaven.

Walter Slattery is a wannabe drummer, music writer, and ’60s throwback. He can be reached at