On Thursday, August 1, the evening before the official start of the 65th Newport Jazz Festival, George Wein, the festival’s original organizer and longtime leader, now 93, was at the piano on the Quad Stage inside Fort Adams, performing a concert that was billed (in a nod to a frequent saying of Count Basie’s) as “One More Once.” In other words, this would be Wein’s last public performance as a pianist. The man standing next to him on stage, bassist Christian McBride, to whom Wein has passed the Newport artistic-direction baton, wasn’t buying it. “I strongly believe he’ll be back for another one next year,” McBride said with a grin.
With backing from members of the Newport Assembly Jazz Band, who also opened the show, Wein and McBride gave Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” a sweet, romantic treatment and tackled another tune that Wein said “I don’t think I’ve ever played before in public, because it’s too hard”—Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight.” Working at a surprisingly fast tempo, Wein threw in some nicely abstract chords and bouts of rhythmic displacement that were surely a nod to the song’s author. His chops seemed well in order; “I’ve practiced more this month than I have in the last three or four years,” he noted, though he acknowledged that playing next to McBride “just destroys you inside. He’s the greatest bass player in the world, as anybody will tell you.”
Midway through the next number, Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train,” a special guest appeared: trumpeter Jon Faddis. “Not only do we have the greatest bass player in the world,” Wein announced, “but we also have the greatest trumpet player.” On Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” Faddis played the head with a mute, Miles-style, then went open for some piercing high notes as McBride laid down a definitive groove. The intimacy and joy in the music seemed a fitting prelude for the three days to come.
“We’ve been here 65 years, and I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved here,” Wein said. “I want to dedicate this program to the generations that have made the festival what it is and the new generation that’s taking it over and will be bringing us more festivals for many years to come.”