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Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein is more interested in where jazz is going than in where it's been as he marks the 60th anniversary of the granddaddy of all outdoor jazz festivals.
That's why the 88-year-old Wein is celebrating the milestone by adding a third day of music at Fort Adams Park on Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay dedicated to emerging artists such as trumpeter Amir ElSaffar's Middle Eastern-influenced quintet, the jazz-funk-rock band Snarky Puppy and Darcy James Argue's Secret Society.
"The focus of this year's festival is what is the future of jazz," said Wein, interviewed at his apartment on Manhattan's East Side. "We can never ignore the history of the music, but at the same time, there is such energy and spirit among young musicians today. We try to find the ones that are creative and give them a stage to be heard."
Among those making their debut at Newport, which runs from Friday through Sunday, is singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, chosen as the top rising star in Downbeat magazine's Critics Poll.
Salvant says she's dreamed of performing at Newport ever since she started out in jazz and saw the trailblazing documentary "Jazz on a Summer's Day" - filmed at the 1958 festival - which included memorable vocal performances by Anita O'Day, Dinah Washington and Louis Armstrong.
Wein, a jazz-pianist-turned-impresario, came up with the idea for the festival after Newport socialite Elaine Lorillard complained to him that the summer scene in the tony resort with its Gilded Age mansions was "terribly boring" and needed some jazz to liven things up. Her tobacco-heir husband, Louis Lorillard, put up $20,000 to hold the event despite hostility from some locals.
Wein says that first festival brought new respect for jazz as an art form, taking it out of smoke-filled clubs and into a more accessible outdoor venue. Now he hopes the festival answers questions about jazz's relevance in American culture today - a topic for a Saturday morning symposium with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.
At the First American Jazz Festival, held July 17-18, 1954, Wein presented a broad spectrum of "Jazz from J to Z" played by both veterans and newcomers. That's still the case, Wein says, only "the Z is extending itself" to encompass an even broader stylistic range.
Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, the only surviving headliner from the first festival, was on the cutting edge when his quartet with pianist Lenny Tristano performed at the Newport Tennis Casino in 1954 on a program that included such jazz giants as Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and Billie Holiday.
"It was very satisfying because we weren't playing the popular music of the day and it was like avant garde," Konitz said. "We didn't get a standing ovation or anything, but the audience was very respectful."
Now 86, Konitz will be returning to Newport this year and performing with his protege, the up-and-coming 22-year-old saxophonist Grace Kelly, who says she's thrilled to be sharing the stage with "one of my idols."
In a nod to the past, Wein is presenting a concert Friday night at the site of the first festival - now the Tennis Hall of Fame.
Singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, who recently starred in the off-Broadway musical play "Lady Day," will be making her long-delayed Newport debut with a set she says "celebrates Billie Holiday and her music in a joyful manner."
Wein asked Wynton Marsalis' Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to close the concert by playing "signature pieces" from Newport's storied past performed by Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, among others. Marsalis plans to honor Duke Ellington's career-rejuvenating 1956 performance of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," famous for its 27-chorus solo by saxophonist Paul Gonsalves.
"Newport is one of the holy places for this music," Marsalis said. "There are hundreds of festivals around the world and Newport is the granddaddy of all of them."
Marsalis says his most memorable Newport experience came in 2005 when he performed for the first time with pianist Dave Brubeck, who appeared at the festival more times than any other musician.
This year, Brubeck's sons, bassist-trombonist Chris Brubeck and drummer Dan Brubeck, will honor their father when the Brubeck Brothers Quartet makes its first Newport appearance since his death in December 2012.
"We don't imitate Dave's group, but I think we're true to the core of what his music was about," Chris Brubeck said. "We were given a great gift of musical legacy."
The festival, which overcame racism, changing musical tastes, riots that shut it down and a decade of exile in New York, almost didn't reach its 60th anniversary.
Wein sold his global festival production company in 2007, and the new management quickly went bust. Wein put up his own money and reacquired the license from Rhode Island authorities to produce the Newport jazz and folk festivals in 2009.
The following year he founded the nonprofit Newport Festivals Foundation, which set up an endowment. Wein, who now works on a pro bono basis, says grants enabled him to expand the festival and offer several thousand discounted $20 student day tickets "to destroy the myth that young people don't like jazz."
I couldn't let Newport die because it's my legacy," Wein said. "Everything I am is because of Newport. ... I won't be involved, but now it's got a rosier future than ever."