In Newport, A Quiet August And The Virus’ Financial Fallout

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Saxophonist Kamasi Washington performs during the 2019 Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island.

(Photo: Corwin Wickersham/Newport Jazz Festival)

Fort Adams State Park—traditionally home to the Newport Jazz Festival—was uncharacteristically quiet the first week of August this year.

Across the harbor from the park, sailboats rocked gently in the Newport, Rhode Island, marina and remained locked up tight. In town, only a few masked folks—girded against the pandemic—strolled the sidewalks. And at the shuttered Newport Visitors Center, a notice was taped inside the door explaining how to claim festival-ticket refunds.

In a normal year, the jazz fest and the attendant Newport Folk Festival draw approximately 10,000 music tourists each day over two weekends to this resort town of fewer than 25,000 year-round residents. The money that these tourists spend not only keeps the festivals solvent, but sustains local enterprises—restaurants, hotels and shops.

“It’s crazy to see the town like this. Usually, it’s packed at this time,” said Stella Melchione, a ticket sales agent at Newport Harbor Shuttle, a boat service that ferries concert attendees back and forth from downtown Newport to Fort Adams. “[The festival cancellation] has taken a big toll on the business overall.”

She and her coworker, Natalie Conover, noted that during a typical festival period, the service makes constant trips throughout the day and into the evening, simultaneously filling five to eight boats to capacity for each run. But “we can’t even fill [the ferries] to half capacity this summer,” Conover said.

Jay Sweet, executive producer of both the Newport music festivals, held off canceling the famed jazz fest until April 29, the day that Gov. Gina Raimondo announced a statewide prohibition on large events for the summer in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The jazz fest and its roots-music counterpart—typically held a week apart—fell under that mandate. This year, the folk festival was scheduled to begin July 30, followed by the jazz festival on Aug. 7.

“We had a good indication that the cancellation was going to happen,” Sweet told DownBeat. “But we couldn’t officially declare the cancellation if we’d wanted to. The governor of Rhode Island had to be the one to officially declare it, because [the festivals are held] in a state park.”

Within hours of the announcement, Sweet and his team had issued a press release explaining the news to fans, musicians and the locals who depend on tourism for their livelihoods.

“The local economy lost $58 million because of the cancellation,” Sweet said. “When you take $58 million out of a local economy, even a robust economy like Newport, it has a huge economic impact. The festivals are the biggest weekends in Newport by far.”

Further along the Newport marina, the Lobster Bar, a family-style restaurant, also was catering to far fewer customers this summer than during past years. Among those who do turn up, emotions—from gratitude at being able to dine out again to anger at ongoing mask requirements—can run high, said general manager Craig Kilroy.

“It’s been a weird summer,” he said. “Not having the festivals is definitely hitting us. We miss them.”

But few concerns were harder hit than the Newport Festivals Foundation, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that manages the events.

“More than 70 percent of our funding comes from the festivals and their auxiliary income, like merchandise, parking, food and beverage, and sponsorship,” said Sweet, who’s been producing the jazz festival since 2016 and the folk festival since 2009. “Without the events, none of that money comes in. This is a real crisis [for us].”

Traditionally, event cancellation insurance would help to deflect the blow from such a crisis. This year, however, the annual insurance policies on offer to events contained an omission.

“Right before we were able to buy our insurance this year, the insurance companies added a COVID-19 carve-out clause to their pandemic coverage,” Sweet said. “There’d already been a breakout in China, and a couple of events there had been canceled due to it, and they immediately [changed their] cancellation policies. So, we had absolutely zero [insurance] help after canceling the events.”

Undaunted, Sweet vowed to deliver something to fans on the scheduled jazz festival weekend, and within 12 hours of the governor’s statement, the infrastructure for a virtual Newport Jazz Festival was being planned.

The Revival Weekend—an exemplary display of virtual music programming—came together quickly. “The day we officially canceled is the day we officially began [preparing for the Revival Weekend],” Sweet said. “My staff and I got together and started white-boarding potential ways we could do something.”

First, as a lead-up to the weekend, the foundation’s artistic director, bassist Christian McBride, partnered with NPR Music and WBGO’s Jazz Night in America to air a three-part radio retrospective of past Newport Jazz Festivals.

For the weekend itself, the bassist pulled even more enticing programming from the archives—some of jazz history’s most iconic Newport performances by John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan and Thelonious Monk, among others. WBGO rebroadcast the artists’ full sets back-to-back for eight hours straight on both Aug. 8 and 9.

Then, as a stand-in for its annual fundraiser, typically held on the Saturday evening of the jazz festival, the foundation live-streamed its Music, Magic & Memories gala for invited donors. On that Sunday, McBride closed out the weekend with Jazz Together, a Facebook Live discussion with a “whole crew of jazz royalty,” as he put it in the introduction. In about 90 minutes, he swapped insights and anecdotes with almost a dozen festival veterans, each speaking in turn from their pandemic shelters.

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