I was looking through George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others to see if I remember correctly that when he produced Newport Jazz Festivals, that they leaned on older jazz guys and tributes to older jazz guys in the 1960s when there was a lot new Newport was missing. The tributes at the upcoming Jazz Fest to Mahalia Jackson, Clifton Chenier, Kid Sheik, George Lewis, Earl Turbinton and Willie Tee, Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole, jazz drummers, Alvin Batiste, Max Roach, the Hackberry Ramblers and Count Basie (admittedly, performed by some version of his orchestra) are unprecedented in my 20 years here. Some of those are natural – Turbinton, Willie Tee and Batiste died last year – and some special performances by single artists – Phillip Manuel sings Cole, Topsy Chapman sings Washington – but still, that’s a lot of looking back.
While skimming the book (and not finding the answer I was looking for yet), I ran across this line: “The obligation to present artists just because they are ‘new’ is not high on my list of priorities.” Clearly, Quint Davis and Jazz Fest bought into Wein’s philosophy, but there are some new, young acts this year – Brett Dennen and the Zac Brown Band, the latter sounding awfully linked to Jimmy Buffett based on Brown’s online hype. For years, I’ve been riding Jazz Fest for its oldness, and how ironic it is that headliners have to wait until they’re past the age when they made the songs everyone wants to hear to be invited to Jazz Fest. The models of musical greatness – the Beatles and Rolling Stones – made their defining records in their 20s and early 30s. As did Robert Plant, Sheryl Crow, Burning Spear, Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder (earlier in his case), but they’ve all had to wait until they no longer mattered (with the exception of Plant, based on Raising Sand to appear.
But my issue isn’t simply age. The other issue is the festival’s resolute retro-ness in its musical values, and it shuns post-modernism as much as possible. Admittedly, this year we do get the Raconteurs’ version of ’70s arena blues rock as Jack White continues to explore his musical past in public, and we get Plant and Alison Krauss doing their version of George and Tammy with T Bone Burnett as their Billy Sherrill. But Dennen and Zac Brown aren’t transpositions of older values into contemporary forms; they’re old wine in new bottles made to look like old bottles. If I want to hear group improvisation, I’ll hear far more of it at Rob Wagner, Hamid Drake and Nobu Ozaki than I will at Widespread Panic, who are closer in spirit to the Doobie Brothers than the Dead. If I want to hear a band jam on guitars, I’d rather hear Sonic Youth, where there is genuine group exploration.
I seem to be chewing hard on this year’s festival, perhaps because it’s being hyped as such a great lineup and it seems pretty same ol’, same ol’ to me. One last age-related thought, though. Evidently if you’re young, not even Grammy nominations can help you. Lost Bayou Ramblers still open the Fais Do-Do Stage one day and the Pine Leaf Boys still play second one day. The nomination might mean something out of town, but at Jazz Fest, experience always counts.
[A late addition: a note on Wein and the JVC Jazz Festival in New York.]