Most years the legendary pianist played the main stage. But on Sunday, Brubeck, 90, will be on one of the more intimate stages, playing as a “special guest” with his sons Chris and Dan.
“I have played the Newport Jazz Festival almost every year since 1955,” Brubeck said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. “It wouldn’t seem like summer without Newport. When I learned my sons’ group would be playing I couldn’t resist their invitation to ‘sit in.’”
The three-day jazz showcase starts Friday at Rhode Island’s Fort Adams State Park and also includes performances from trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, the Mingus Big Band, and others.
For more than 50 years the festival has featured the best jazz old and new, and has showcased a who’s who of jazz superstars: Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.
“If you played baseball, and you got to play at Fenway Park, that’s what it’s like to play at Newport,” said Chris Brubeck, a composer who plays trombone, piano and bass. “It’s hallowed, sacred ground.”
It’s also proven to be resilient, surviving financial challenges, moves to New York and attempts to broaden its appeal with groups like Led Zeppelin.
Festival co-founder and long-time producer George Wein was playing piano and running the Storyville jazz club in Boston when Newport socialite Elaine Lorillard asked him to organize a performance to entertain Newport’s affluent summer social scene. The 85-year-old Wein has been producing the festival ever since.
“I never quit,” Wein said. “I say ‘Do what you believe in, and keep doing it.’ I do it for the music.”
The festival hit some rough years in the late 1960s when non-jazz acts were invited to play. Chris Brubeck recalled the 1971 festival when unruly fans without tickets stormed the gates, launching bottle rockets into the audience and destroying instruments. Chris’ younger brother Matthew was nearly crushed when he was caught between the mob and the stage.
“All of a sudden, this brawny pair of arms reaches down and picks my brother up. It was Dizzy (Gillespie),” he said with a chuckle. “The jazz community really takes care of its own.”
Local backlash prompted Wein to move the festival to New York. He returned the event to Newport in 1981. Now the city embraces the festival – and the spotlight it brings to the city.
“It’s been great for the city,” said Newport Mayor Stephen Waluk. “It’s become one of the highlights of the summer season, and I can’t imagine it not happening in Newport.”
This year Wein decided to take the jazz festival – and its sister event, the Newport Folk Festival – nonprofit to ensure their long-term existence. The festival also attracted a new corporate backer: investment firm Natixis Global Asset Management.
Wein said nonprofit status will allow tax-deductible contributions from music lovers and corporate sponsors. Several other music festivals are already nonprofit, including the Monterey and New Orleans jazz festivals.
Thursday night entertainer Bill Cosby is scheduled to serve as master of ceremonies at a gala held at a Newport mansion to raise money for the two music celebrations.