Riffing On the Tradition: 'Festival Junction' ... Looking forward to Newport 2012
My summer continues with more opportunities to assess the perception of our music abroad. This week, I'm visiting my friend Alexandre Cellier and his family near Lausanne, Switzerland. His father is the estimable Marcel Cellier, now 86, whose work dealing mineral ores allowed him to travel behind the Iron Curtain in the early 1950s. He and his wife scoured the Slavic frontier and recorded marvelous Eastern European folk musics barely known to Western audiences.
More precisely, I'm in the Vaud region, where miles of terraced vineyards meet Lake Geneva. The Montreux Jazz Festival is underway just a few miles from here, but having seen the program with scant jazz offerings, I'm not too interested. Montreux, which started in the late 1960s, didn't last long as a "Jazz" festival, and today, the jazz-related shows are usually free concerts on outdoor stages. Last night, $100 would have gotten me into D'Angelo's show; an actual seat would have been about $300. Dedicated New Orleans music fans can still hop on a plane to hear Dr. John next Monday; however, far lest costly would be to hear the Night Tripper at the New Orleans-themed concert that is opening this year's Newport Jazz Festival.
Newport is special, and I'm not just saying that because I'll be performing there next month. Besides the same birth year, the festival's founder and chairman of "New Festival Productions," George Wein, shares something very important with Marcel Cellier. They have both always sought musical quality and creativity as a function of true expression.
Curious about the remarkable vision of Newport, I spoke with Mr. Wein by telephone about the currency of creative traditions, and how a jazz festival stays a "Jazz" festival when even in New Orleans, the Montreux formula seems more the norm.
First, Mr. Wein explained the evolution of the Newport festival, reminding me that jazz's relation to popular music coming out of the swing era was key. Not only were the numerous big names of jazz part of the attraction, but a forming intellectual view of Jazz as a cultural, even social achievement resonated with the left-leaning denizens of Newport who leisured there in the summertime and were hungry for things to do.
Today, with the demise of record labels, Mr. Wein acknowledges that it's much more difficult for musicians to be known. But instead of going to the proverbial well for whatever names might still be marketable, the mission of Newport is instead to show how things are still evolving. He is adamant that there are brilliant musicians who need to be heard, and to find them he says he'll often hear live music three nights a week.
Mr. Wein told me he's not even necessarily looking for what he likes. What's important to him is that a group has its own thing, is doing it well and is being creative. Besides extraordinary artistry, what he wants to be evident in the breadth of Newport's programming is that bandleaders such as Darcy James Argue, John Hollenbeck and Dafnis Prieto reflect honesty.
So, it seems to me that there are two ways we can go with our music, depending on how we choose to view its essential function. Don't get me wrong -- I was as honored to perform at Montreux a few years ago as I am to be a part of this year's Newport, but I'm learning there's a price when our music loses its essential function, which for Marcel Cellier "lies in the externalization of profound needs, both individual and collective." He says it's also problematic when our music "ceases being an act of culture and becomes an object of entertainment or commerce."
Spread the word about Newport. Music with meaning in a festival context is rare, and we can learn a great deal from George Wein's unique model.
Evan Christopher, a noted member of the New Orleans music community, writes “Riffing on the Tradition” for NolaVie. His showcase at the 2012 Newport Jazz Festival will be a three clarinet summit with Ken Peplowski and Anat Cohen. All of his columns also are archived at Clarinet Road.com.