The Newport Jazz Festival

by admin - December 4th, 2017

By Elena Mouradian

Throughout the 1950s, jazz music in America became increasingly popular. The Depression, World War II, and Postwar years were responsible for creating the unique jazz sound. This sound came from the migration of African Americans to the north who blended gospel music, blues, and traditional African music (270). One of the reasons for the growth of jazz music in the 50s was due to the growing popularity of the television. The television replaced the need for radio in many households and became the most important entertainment medium. It benefited jazz musicians because instead of playing through the radio, they could appear on variety programs and specials. Specials would feature live jazz from performers such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Miles Davis. Their appearance increased America’s desire to watch jazz musicians perform and to listen to the sound live. It paved the way for modern day jazz bars and concerts.

The First Newport Jazz Festival on July 17, 1954

In 1954, The Newport Jazz Festival was established in Newport, Rhode Island. Elaine Lorillard and Louis Lorillard believed that jazz music deserves a big festival just like other genres. They contacted jazz musician and producer George Wein to help them establish the event. The group named the event the “First Annual American Jazz Festival”. (Hevesi) It is normally held over a weekend on a lawn or outdoor location. Not only did it incorporate live jazz performances, but it also featured panel discussions.

Although the first festival had about 7,000 fans at the Newport Casino, it came with opposition for many reasons. Newport was not prepared for the large attendance and traffic that the festival brought and they also had a problem with some fans sleeping in tents. Many fans slept in tents because most of them were not from the area. The jazz festival attracted a young crowd and the majority of that crowd were black. Racist attitudes in an old upper-class community was most likely the creation of the opposition. The beginning years came with opposition, but it did not stop the festival from growing larger and larger.

Since its first event in 1954, the Newport Jazz Festival has continued to be held every summer. Many famous jazz artists have given performances that provided the spotlight and popularity that the event has gained. There were a number of notable events and performances. For example, Lester Young joining Billie Holiday onstage in 1954, Paul Gonsalves’ soloing with the help of the Duke Ellington Orchestra for 27 choruses of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” in 1956, Frank Sinatra arriving in a helicopter for his first and only time performing in 1965, and Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson singing “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” for his 70th birthday tribute in 1970 (Smith).

The Newport Jazz Festival is the center of jazz. Its credibility and reputation for having great improvised music and enjoyable audience continues to attract many fans, but now they come from all demographics and ages.

Works Cited

Dunar, Andrew J. America in the Fifties. Syracuse University Press, 2006.

Hevesi, Dennis. “Started Newport Jazz Festival; Oscar Peterson Performed at 1st, in 1954.
Yearly Concert Series Began with Casual Remark.” The Gazette: B7. Nov 30 2007.
ProQuest. Web.

Ryan Belmore, July 17, 2015. “On This Day In Newport History: July 17, 1954 – First Newport Jazz Festival Held.” What’sUpNewp, 22 Aug. 2015,

Smith, Andy. “Newport Jazz Fest Highlights through the Years.” Providence Journal,, 28 July 2014,

One Response to “The Newport Jazz Festival”

  1. Meagan Sebastiao says:

    I was so fascinated while reading your blog post! It’s so cool to learn about and say that the “First Annual American Jazz Festival” is so close to where I live and in general, a place that most New Englanders know of. I have been to Newport during the festival but had no idea as to what was going on haha! I wonder if this is one of the first music festivals of all genres of music? I know festivals like Woodstock has been around for a while and Boston Calling and Coachella are two of the more well known ones today.