As Newport Fest Curator, McBride Continues Wein’s Programming Vision

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’You can’t simply book a festival with things that you like,” Christian McBride says of the Newport Jazz Festival. “You have a responsibility to present up-and-coming artists who people don’t know yet. And you have to get people in the seats.”

(Photo: Ebru Yildiz)

This year’s Newport Jazz Festival, scheduled for Aug. 4–6, will continue George Wein’s strategy of presenting a mix of artists, established and emerging, young and old, representing all contemporary styles of jazz, from superstars like Herbie Hancock and Diana Krall, to much-heralded newcomers like Samara Joy and James Brandon Lewis.

“We are still doing our best to shine a spotlight on what is currently trending in jazz, while keeping an eye on the traditional sounds of jazz,” Christian McBride, the festival’s current curator, said in a recent phone call.

Wein, the visionary impresario, pianist and philanthropist who died in 2021 at the age of 95, founded the festival in 1954 and ran it almost every year since. It became the model for dozens of large, outdoor jazz festivals around the world, many of which were produced by Wein himself. In 2016, when Wein was entering his nineties and still curating the festival, he picked McBride to succeed him as artistic director — but only after what McBride described as a careful vetting.

When the two started talking about the job, McBride said, Wein already knew all about the bassist’s previous forays into jazz event programming, including his work with the L.A. Philharmonic producing jazz and pop concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall. “I was actually surprised,” McBride said. “The way he kept his finger on the pulse of what was going on in jazz was pretty incredible; he knew everything that was going on” right up to the end.

One lesson McBride said he learned from that earlier experience, and which was reaffirmed by his experience with Wein, was that “you can’t simply book a festival with things that you like. … You have a responsibility to present up-and-coming artists who people don’t know yet. And you have to get people in the seats. That means you have to book people who are going to sell you some tickets so that they can see the people you believe in who don’t have that drawing power yet.”

McBride mused on the big names of the past who made Newport what it is: “People like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck — they set the tone for what jazz actually means. There’s not a lot of people who play in that style who have drawing power these days. But we do have … legends (this year) like Dave Holland, Charles Lloyd, Herbie Hancock and Charles McPherson. We have Bobby Watson and Orrin Evans. We have Somi coming, who in so many ways reminds me of Miriam Makeba. Then we have someone young and hot like (pianist) Julius Rodriquez, who is such an incredible young artist. And (baritone saxophonist) Lauren Sevian. I’m very proud of the diversity. At the same time, we’re keeping those core values of acoustic music in there as well.”

Curating the festival requires a combination of instinct and market research, he said. “I work with a team who are into the analytics of it all. Another thing I learned from George: It always helps if you have someone very young on the team. Our person in charge of artist relations, Becca Peters, is in her early 20s, and she’s wonderful. It helps to have someone like her who’s in the eye of the Gen Z hurricane. Every now and then she’ll recommend artists who I haven’t heard before, what we call a “jazz-adjacent” artist. It was her idea to bring (New Orleans rapper) Big Freedia to Newport this year. Same thing with (the soul duo) The War and Treaty.”

McBride is particularly excited about Sunday, the festival’s closing day, which was the first to sell out. “It features the most artists associated with traditional jazz, so I think that says a lot,” he said, acknowledging that the audience for Newport has always been a little more tradition-minded.

Among those appearing on Sunday, “I think Samara is one of the great stories,” he said. “I’m also excited about the MoodSwing Reunion, Joshua Redman’s quartet with me, Brad (Mehldau) and Brian (Blade); and Herbie and Diana Krall. And Charles McPherson. If I’m not mistaken, this is his first appearance at Newport as a bandleader.”

An unusual group making its first appearance at Newport this year will be Armstrong Now, a group organized by drummer Jake Goldblas in association with the Louis Armstrong House Museum. “His trumpet players are Sean Jones, Giveton Gelin and Marquis Hill, with Herlin Riley on drums. They will be doing modern versions of Louis Armstrong material, and I cannot wait to hear it.”

McBride will also perform with a group he calls his “Jam Jawn” — his version of a jam band. The group will include Bob James on keyboards, drummer Nate Smith, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, guitarist Eric Krasno, percussionist Mega Santos and blues/rock singer Celise, who has previously played the Newport Folk Festival.

The festival continues to be inspired by the spirit of Wein, himself a competent, swinging pianist, who combined his love of music and his fellow musicians with his talents as a hard-headed businessperson.

“Here’s the number-one lesson I learned from George,” McBride said. “I think his success singularly lay in the fact that what he cared most about was the music and the musicians that made it. Outside of the Newport Jazz Festival, and the Kool Jazz Festival, and the Saratoga Jazz Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival — all of which George created — he was always creating opportunities for musicians to play, get exposed and get paid. He was always organizing small events at his apartment or some venue somewhere in the world.

“He cared about the music, and caring about the business means that you care about the musicians that make it, too. … Some of the festivals seem to have the attitude that they are making the musicians. But it’s the other way around.” DB



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