The Newport Jazz Festival started with a late-night conversation between Boston jazz club owner George Wein and one of Newport's most distinguished couples, tobacco heir Louis Lorillard and his wife, Elaine. What could they do, they wondered, to make summers in staid old Newport more fun? George Wein had the answer.
"First of all, there were no trains to Newport," he recalls. "There were no planes there. You had to pay a toll to go over a bridge or take a ferry to get there. So it was a difficult place to get to. So I thought it would be a good place to have a festival."
And so, with Wein's musical savvy and the financial backing of the Lorillards, the Newport Jazz Festival was born.
Says Wein, "Nobody knew what we were getting into because nobody had ever done festivals of this sort. We really didn't know we were making history."
Certainly not that first summer. The profits totaled just $150. But over the years, the festival grew into an institution. It became a prized performance date for jazz musicians everywhere.
"Honoring the tradition and presenting new artists has been one of the things we've done from the beginning," Wein notes.
The recording career of Miles Davis took off because of an early performance at Newport. Wein recalls, "That was the festival when our sound system was not very good. But Miles put his horn right into the microphone and played 'Round Midnight' and came out of there the biggest star in jazz."
Duke Ellington's band soared in popularity after a legendary performance at Newport. Notes Wein, "Duke Ellington said he was reborn in Newport in 1956... He was always, to me, a god."
It was at Newport that Louis Armstrong celebrated his 70th birthday. "He could not play the trumpet. He could only sing," says Wein. "It was Louis' last hurrah. He died within the year after that."
And it was at Newport that gospel singer Mahalia Jackson made history. "She appeared there several times," says Wein, "but the first time she appeared was very important. That's the first time a lot of the gospel singers in that program had played for white audiences."
In the '60s, popular rock 'n' roll bands were added to the mix, with mixed results. The crowds grew larger, and younger, and more unruly. Finally, in 1971, the town canceled the festival.
"These kids were uncontrollable," recalls Wein. "They were the same kids that went to Woodstock and just walked in without paying. And so I said, 'I have to go to an urban area.' And what better urban area than New York City?"
George Wein's summer classic not only survived in New York. It thrived, taking on a life of its own. But Newport still beckoned and, in 1981, the festival returned to the place where it all began.
Fifty years later, the winning formula remains the same: summer, the sea, and all that jazz.