Update: Hear here.
I haven’t heard much noise around the recent news that Wolfgang’s Vault, the online concert repository, has acquired the rights to recordings from the most glorious years of the Newport Jazz Festival. This surprises me a bit. The initial batch of music, available as a free stream or reasonably priced download, consists of full sets by Dakota Staton, the Count Basie Orchestra (with Joe Williams and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross), and Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, all from 50 years ago. As Ben Ratliff notes in the piece linked above: “There are chillingly good performances in the 1959 crop, from half-inch three-track tapes mixed for stereo, made with stage microphones that pick up the nuances of the drums and the growls of the band members.” And more, much more, is apparently on the way.
My first notice of the Wolfgang’s Vault acquisition -- which, as Ratliff implies, may yet encounter some outstanding rights issues -- came from jazz critics Will Friedwald and Bill Milkowski, back in August. (Milkowski has been working with the Vault in an advisory capacity.) At the time I was wrapped up in the drama of the festival’s rejuvenation, which I covered in pictures and in words. I made a mental note to ask George Wein, the Newport Jazz Festival founder, about the audio archive, but it was quickly forgotten in the rush of music and good feeling. And lobster rolls. (See Fig. A below.)
It may seem odd that I was uninformed about these tapes, having worked so closely and for so long with Wein on his autobiography, Myself Among Others. I did know that many of the vintage festivals were recorded in full by record labels -- chiefly Columbia, Verve and RCA -- and that the tapes did exist, awaiting rediscovery (which seemed likely) and proper clearance (which didn’t, and still doesn’t, really). Of course many of us have heard portions of this trove in commercially released form; the Basie-and-Prez tableau at the top of this post is courtesy of Verve, 1957. (Wish I could have used this photo too, but Getty Images have their own rights requirements.)
So why did Wein’s old company, Festival Productions, sit on these tapes? I’d suggest a few reasons. First, they were understood as the property of the record labels. Second, the business of producing festivals left little time for retrospection. And third, the project would have been of little interest to Wein, whom Ratliff quotes thusly: “I was never an archive person, either. I just didn’t pay any attention to it.”
Believe me when I say this is not a pose. Festival Production maintained a good collection of press clippings, but the recorded and photographic history of the festival(s) generally fell to outsiders, often those with a material investment in it. “One of the biggest mistakes we made at Newport was not getting the rights to photos,” Wein has told me on various occasions. “Some of the most enduring images in jazz were taken at Newport, and my company has relatively few archival prints.” That sentiment appears verbatim in Myself Among Others, in the section pertaining to the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival. It applies just as well to recordings as to photographs, obviously.
Ratliff reported that a total of 27 sets from the 1959 festival will be available by Tuesday. Among the bounty: sets by the classic Ahmad Jamal Trio, the Thelonious Monk Quartet with Charlie Rouse, and the Horace Silver Quintet. What else to expect? Probably the Modern Jazz Quartet; the Dave Brubeck Quartet; trios led by Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Jimmy Smith and Kenny Burrell; a 15-piece George Shearing band; the Duke Ellington Orchestra; the Stan Kenton Orchestra with Charlie Mariano; and quintets led by Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Mann. Um, lobster, anyone?
Below, another shot from Newport, 2009. Hear that one at NPR.