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A Newport Jazz Festival of the Mind

David Redfern
Miles Davis, with a partially obscured George Wein, at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival.

Right about now, in any other year, many of us would be gearing up for a trip to Newport, R.I.

This year, of course, is different. The Newport Jazz Festival is one of countless pleasures put on hold, with a hopeful marker in place for next year. Which got us thinking not only about what we’re missing, but also about what the festival means — as a summer ritual, as a rite of passage, as a historical nexus, as a brand name.

I’ve been fascinated by Newport lore for almost as long as I’ve been listening to jazz. So has Greg Bryant, my co-host on Jazz United. But we have two distinct relationships with the festival. For me, it’s been something like home turf, ever since I wrote a book with festival impresario George Wein about 20 years ago. For Greg, the Newport Jazz Festival lives on record and in pictures — but this summer would have marked his first time making the pilgrimage.

So we devoted this episode of Jazz United to a conversation about Newport Jazz in absentia. What has the festival meant over the years, and how has that changed? How have albums like Ellington at Newport, and films like Jazz on a Summer’s Day, defined the place of jazz within American culture? What are the musical touchstones that define Newport for each of us? And how can we reconstruct or otherwise conjure the festival experience from afar?

This episode of Jazz United joins a suite of Newport proxy programming at WBGO — notably Jazz Revival Radio, happening Aug. 8 and 9, and a glorious three-part radio special from Jazz Night in America.

A new 4K restoration of Jazz on a Summer’s Day will be available through virtual cinemas starting Aug. 12, through Kino Marquee. (In the New York area, Kino Lorber is presenting the film in partnership with Film Forum.)

Jazz United is produced by Sarah Kerson.

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Music Featured in This Episode (Recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival)

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A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.
Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.