Chuck Berry, who died on Saturday at 90, was nothing short of a pioneer in American music: a guitar slinger who created the very template for rock 'n' roll; a singer who embodied the youthful, rambunctious desires of the age; a songwriter capable of compressing an epic tale into a few tight verses. He was also a runaway highlight of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which made for more than a little controversy at the time.
Berry was far from the usual brand of headliner at Newport. That year marked only the fifth annual edition, but in that brief time it had become a barometer of taste in jazz, and in many ways an engine of critical and commercial consensus. At the time, the festival — founded by clubowner and producer George Wein in partnership with the Newport socialites Elaine and Louis Lorillard — was a nonprofit with a distinguished board of directors, including the Columbia Records producer and talent scout John Hammond. It was Hammond who insisted on including Berry on a blues-themed Saturday program, as an innovator and paragon of rock 'n' roll.
And, it should be said, a star: Berry was well on his way by the summer of 1958, having scored a handful of hit singles, including "School Days" and "Sweet Little Sixteen," both of which he brought to the Newport stage.
Wein had his misgivings, as he recalled in his autobiography, Myself Among Others, which we wrote together, and published on Da Capo Press in 2003.
Rock and roll, in my mind, did not belong on the Newport Festival any more than Guy Lombardo did. Despite the fact that Chuck Berry sang with the jazz-slanted Newport Blues Band (which included Jack Teagarden, Buck Clayton, Buddy Tate, George Auld, Rudy Rutherford, Pete Johnson, and Jo Jones — totally the wrong musicians to play with Chuck, as I later realized), there was no disguising his act as jazz. When he went into his duckwalk during "School Days," I literally cringed. I could almost feel the knives that the critics were going to hurl in our direction. Needless to say, the crowd loved it.
Because the fashion photographer Bert Stern happened to be filming the festival that year, there is footage of Berry with this unlikely jazz coterie on the Newport stage. It appears in Stern's 1960 film Jazz on a Summer's Day, and even with the mild clash of styles, the moment still has a live spark.
Keith Richards remembers this performance in his memoir, Life, with a bitter tang that reflects the insecurity behind the insouciant insurgence of young rock 'n' roller. "I think it was Chuck's proudest moment, when he got up there," Richards writes.
"It's not a particularly good version of 'Sweet Little Sixteen,' but it was the attitude of the cats behind him, solid against the way he looked and the way he was moving. They were laughing at him." He adds: "Jo Jones was raising his drumstick after every few beats and grinning as if he were in play school."
To my mind, this is a misreading: Jones looks like he's having a ball, and why wouldn't he? The chief catalyst in Count Basie's All-American Rhythm Section was not, I would venture, a man indisposed to the pleasures of a rock 'n' roll beat. To borrow a term of art from trumpeter Nicholas Payton, this is Black American Music, in the big-tent sense: one family of groove, not swing but most definitely swinging.
"The grand irony lies in the fact that putting Chuck Berry on at Newport was a daring move that opened the door for similar presentations all over the world," Wein wrote. "So I get credit for being a visionary. I'm always careful to point out that John Hammond was responsible for this decision. John deserves the credit, and I'll take the blame."
It's possible that there could even be a shout-out to Berry at this year's Newport Jazz Festival: The Roots are headlining on closing night, and "Captain" Kirk Douglas, the group's guitar hotshot, is almost certainly a fan. Put the smart money on "Sweet Little Sixteen," and raise a glass to a Newport interloper who made history, in more ways than one.