First Newport Jazz Festival Is Held

The 1954 Newport Jazz Festival symbolized jazz’s popular and commercial revival and marked another stage in its curious and exciting evolution.

Summary of Event

The fortunes and visibility of jazz’s varied styles and players, and public acceptance of them, have swung almost cyclically since the 1890’s. Jazz began in parochial obscurity as an apparent musical and cultural eccentricity endemic to groups of musicians in New Orleans, St. Louis, Memphis, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, and New York City from the 1880’s through the early 1900’s. It emerged into national prominence as ragtime, blues, and Dixieland music, and the various styles had become widely known as “jazz” by 1917. While purists and some music historians exclude all such styles but Dixieland from classification as early jazz, performers in each instance knew that it was still jazz that they were singing or playing. [kw]First Newport Jazz Festival Is Held (July 17-18, 1954)
[kw]Newport Jazz Festival Is Held, First (July 17-18, 1954)
[kw]Jazz Festival Is Held, First Newport (July 17-18, 1954)
[kw]Festival Is Held, First Newport Jazz (July 17-18, 1954)
Newport Jazz Festival
Jazz;Newport Jazz Festival
Newport Jazz Festival
Jazz;Newport Jazz Festival
[g]North America;July 17-18, 1954: First Newport Jazz Festival Is Held[04560]
[g]United States;July 17-18, 1954: First Newport Jazz Festival Is Held[04560]
[c]Music;July 17-18, 1954: First Newport Jazz Festival Is Held[04560]
Christian, Charlie
Young, Lester
Eldridge, Roy
Blanton, Jimmy
Parker, Charlie
Gillespie, Dizzy
Tristano, Lennie
Mulligan, Gerry
Peterson, Oscar
Davis, Miles

Intended as a “four-letter” word, always intentionally shocking to the non-jazz musical world, jazz derived from and thrived upon dispute and divisions among its own devotees as well as upon a measure of social disrepute. Consequently, its varied temporal currents—including ragtime, Dixieland, blues, Chicago jazz, swing, boogie-woogie, Kansas City jazz, bop, hard bop, and cool jazz—have enjoyed their greatest popularity when the general public has undergone significant social and generational changes (among them altered racial attitudes), when dominant musical styles become stale, or when public taste overtakes the products of jazz musicians’ ingenuity. Jazz historians and musicians can therefore conveniently trace the evolution of jazz by charting its preeminent styles—with a due reckoning of subtle, long-term developments—almost decade by decade.

The late 1940’s and 1950’s were marked by the partial consummation of a jazz revolution, notable for its stylistic diversity but more particularly for the early dominance of the styles of bop and cool jazz—as well as for the novel commercial attraction of large audiences through live and recorded performances. Such was the broad context into which the Newport Jazz Festival of July, 1954, fit. Sponsored by the Newport Chamber of Commerce, by town residents such as Louis Lorillard, Louis and Elaine Lorillard Lorillard, Elaine , and by Boston impresario George Wein Wein, George , the festival was an outgrowth of the tremendous successes of Norman Granz Granz, Norman . A serious jazz fan, Granz had in the 1940’s and early 1950’s introduced the jazz concert, often in conjunction with philharmonic orchestras, to various parts of the country. His self-described motives were to improve race relations—contractually, all audiences had to be unsegregated—to offer great jazz, and to turn a profit. He realized something of all three objectives, in the process becoming a multimillionaire.

When musicians and performers gathered on the Newport Casino’s tennis courts on the evening of July 17, 1954, jazz was in the midst of another of its transitions, in this instance away from its roots and toward bop music (a rapid, complex style of jazz variously known as “bebop” and “rebop”) and its many distinctive substyles. Bop, of course, had not sprung full-blown from jazz musicians’ instruments; it had sunk roots of its own decades earlier in the unique or experimental playing of Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Jimmy Blanton, Roy Eldridge, and Bix Beiderbecke. These experiences were passed to or absorbed by Lennie Tristano, Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, Gil Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, and, among still others, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Mingus, and Thelonious Monk.

The playing of all these men departed rhythmically from the solid beat of hot jazz and swing; harmonically, chords were more ambitious, forming new progressions away from familiar sequences; and, accordingly, melody often was shifted away from singable or even recognizable tunes, and the focus was typically on a series of short-duration notes. Such jazz was more complex and required more abstract comprehension from its listeners than did earlier styles; indeed, the new approach alienated many audiences, just as its counterparts in fine arts, classical music, and architecture had done as those disciplines, too, were revolutionized during the first half of the twentieth century.

At Newport’s inaugural jazz festival, the billing made a propitiatory bow toward various styles of jazz. Stan Kenton Kenton, Stan , the former leader of the first great West Coast jazz band, acted as master of ceremonies and recited a history of jazz. Trumpeter Bobby Hackett, bandleader Eddie Condon, clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, and the magnificent—and versatile—singer Ella Fitzgerald were on hand to symbolize the fading “swing” era. However, it was the modern—particularly the “cool”—jazz musicians who dominated the two evenings of performances.

The already popular Modern Jazz Quartet Modern Jazz Quartet , which had sprung from Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra in 1952, with vibraharpist Milt Jackson, pianist John Lewis, drummer Connie Kay, and bassist Percy Heath, performed to acclaim. So too did famed Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson, Chicago saxophonist Lee Konitz Konitz, Lee (who had worked with Claude Thornhill’s and Kenton’s bands as well as with Miles Davis and Lennie Tristano), and Gerry Mulligan, a baritone saxophonist, composer, and arranger of cool West Coast jazz. Nearly fourteen thousand people attended the festival, and the profits reportedly exceeded twenty-five thousand dollars—a measure of acceptance adequate to drive forward plans for further festivals.

In addition to Norman Granz’s managerial abilities, several other factors accounted for the first festival’s success. Certainly, a wartime ban on recordings and audience boredom with reiterations of swing-band music from the 1930’s and the World War II years created an immense demand for novel musical styles. The new forms of jazz grew enormously in popularity; nightclubs featuring jazz proliferated. Newspapers and magazines began treating jazz seriously, hiring specialists to review its evolution. Bookstores offered comprehensive encyclopedias and specialized studies on jazz and its personalities. In addition, a number of radio stations—notably FM stations—accorded jazz an accepted place alongside mainstream music, while recording companies produced spates of jazz records. These developments were paralleled by the emergence of a new generation of highly trained jazz musicians who were eager in their own right to experiment freely and break with old routines. At least equally important, as concerts and the Newport festival confirmed, jazz at last appealed to a mass paying audience.


Despite popular impressions to the contrary in the United States, the Newport Festivals were not the first jazz shows of their kind, even in America. Trying to make jazz respectable, for example, bandleader Paul Whiteman Whiteman, Paul had attempted something similar in New York City’s Aeolian Hall in 1924 with his introduction of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; Rhapsody in Blue (Gershwin) and overseas, as jazz became a special American export, jazz shows were familiar events. There had been festival-like shows in Australia in 1946, in Nice, France, in 1948 (a show that had featured Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Baby Dodds, Pops Foster, Barney Bigard, and Jack Teagarden, among others), and in Paris—a show featuring Miles Davis, Sidney Bechet, and Charlie Parker—in 1949. Relative to the Newport festivals and other later shows, however, these were modest affairs.

In this regard, there is no question that the context in which the first Newport festival occurred was a unique one. Indeed, it was amid a veritable popular jazz revival, evidenced by newspaper, magazine, book, and radio coverage and promotion, that Newport sponsors organized their initial presentation. The success of the first festival encouraged more. In 1955, a three-day event held in a Newport football stadium that accommodated fifteen thousand people reported profits in excess of fifty thousand dollars. By 1956, when saxophonist Paul Gonsalves Gonsalves, Paul , under the direction of the enduring and remarkable Duke Ellington, performed successive choruses of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” (Ellington)[Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue] the crowd danced in the aisles—and profits rose above the previous year’s.

The 1957 festival, not surprisingly, thus became a four-day affair, and for added interest even featured non-jazz performances by the New York City Ballet and popular singer and dancer Eartha Kitt. Again, profits soared. Regardless of the performers—the 1958 and 1959 festivals, for instance, included international jazz talents as well as the Stockholm Opera Company—the commercial success continued, not only at Newport, but also elsewhere in the United States and Canada, where appetites of audiences and promoters alike had been whetted. Nationally, by the end of the 1950’s, nine festivals were reported having grossed nearly one million dollars.

Profits notwithstanding, by 1960, disillusionment with Newport’s festivals—and with some imitative gatherings elsewhere—became increasingly apparent, chiefly for two reasons. First, as festival promoters catered to larger audiences, they drew in constituencies of people to whom the event itself was more important than the music presented. Rowdyism broke out in 1959, and alcohol-fueled riots disrupted the third night of a five-day festival in 1960. Newport’s city council, previously lax in its enforcement of liquor laws, closed the festival, causing its organizers losses of more than $100,000. Reopened under stricter law enforcement, the festival still encountered the same difficulties, largely because of the fans drawn to the event.

Riots occurred again in 1961, 1969, and 1970, with the result that operations were transferred to New York City in 1972. Newport’s experience through the decade had a dampening effect on festivals and concerts elsewhere. Mass-audience jazz events at New York City’s Randall’s Island, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, and at Quaker City, Philadelphia, all thereafter caused significant financial losses for their sponsors. Meanwhile, smaller jazz concerts that attracted fewer but more devoted fans to such places as Monterey, California, and Long Island continued to prosper. Yet the steam had gone out of Newport-style festivals by the close of the 1960’s.

There was further disillusionment with large festivals among jazz musicians themselves. Many, like Miles Davis, found “jazz supermarkets” offensive. Others complained, as did Oscar Peterson, about redundant programming and about the modest—often exceedingly brief—playing time allotted to even headline performers. Moreover, despite accrued experience with festivals, organizers often did little to improve basic facilities such as sound, lighting, staging, and timing. Similarly, Newport and other “festivals” scarcely lived up to their names as such, concentrating instead almost exclusively on jazz numbers and not upon other jazz-related festivities. There were exceptions; though the music was roundly criticized, the President’s Music Committee’s so-called International Jazz Festival International Jazz Festival (1962) of 1962 did sponsor an event in Washington, D.C., that was notable for the scope of its jazz entertainments, which ranged from films to ballet.

In other areas, however, the impetus lent to jazz by Newport and by comparable festivals continued. Hundreds of thousands of people had listened to live jazz concerts, and nearly eighty million dollars in jazz recordings had been sold by the end of the 1960’s. Moreover, jazz poetry had gained a foothold on the West Coast and in New York, and jazz playing was welcomed into the services and other activities of many churches eager to take advantage of the revival. Jazz musicians, who were often more comfortable playing for themselves, for one another, or for small but devoted audiences, remained divided between traditionalists—who played “hot” music—and those whose training and interpretations of tradition kept them experimenting with cooler, freer, and more esoteric forms. Newport Jazz Festival
Jazz;Newport Jazz Festival

Further Reading

  • Dale, Rodney. The World of Jazz. Birmingham, England: Basinghall Books, 1979. A fine introduction to nearly all the major figures associated with Newport and other jazz festivals, along with excellent thumbnail sketches of their specialties, accomplishments, and contributions to jazz. Good brief historical material on jazz’s evolution. Scores of photos, two appendixes, directory of musicians, brief index.
  • Gennari, John. “Hipsters, Bluebooks, Rebels, and Hooligans: The Cultural Politics of the Newport Jazz Festival, 1945-1960.” In Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies, edited by Robert G. O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, and Farah Jasmine Griffin. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Detailed look at the various personas of the jazz musicians involved in the early years of the festival, and the importance of those personas to the music and to its cultural meaning and reception. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Hentoff, Nat. The Jazz Life. New York: Dial Press, 1961. Popularly written. Hentoff supplied Stan Kenton with his history of jazz for recitation at the first Newport festival and was the author of numerous works on the jazz scene. An informative read on the jazz elites. Some photos, no notes; brief bibliography, index.
  • Hodeir, André. Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence. Translated by W. David Noakes. New York: Grove Press, 1961. A major work; an authoritative and well-balanced discussion of jazz rather than an analysis of its social or historical contexts. Notes, bibliography, and index.
  • Tirro, Frank. Jazz: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. Excellent, if no more definitive than other histories of jazz. A splendid employment of historical, sociological, and cultural anthropological perspectives. Excellent on the “jazz revolution.” Photos and scores. Ample chapter notes, fine annotated bibliography, discography, and an excellent triple-columned index.
  • Ulanov, Barry. A History of Jazz in America. New York: Viking Press, 1955. Authoritative, readable, reliable, and informative. Long a standard work, if by later standards lacking in broader sociocultural perspectives. Some photos, notes, a somewhat dated bibliography, good index.
  • Wilson, John S. Jazz: The Transition Years, 1940-1960. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966. Superb, concise, yet filled with carefully chosen materials. The author was a former jazz critic for The New York Times, so the emphasis is on the analytical and interpretative study of jazz’s transition from swing through bop to cool. Useful information on Newport festivals. Short, but still an outstanding, perceptive work. Essential reading. No photos. Useful glossary, brief discography, and even briefer bibliography. Fine double-columned index.

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