2023 Kearney Lecture – "Newport Jazz, 1954–Today: The Cultural Impact of an American Institution"

"Newport Jazz, 1954–Today: The Cultural Impact of an American Institution"

(Pictured: Billy Glasner, Newport Jazz Festival Director of Partnerships and Archivist)

Students, faculty and staff experienced a lively discussion during the 2023 Kearney Lecture on campus Friday, Feb. 10. Newport Jazz Festival’s Director of Partnerships and Archivist Billy Glasner and Director of Development and Education Dan Swain spoke to the Abbey community about the influence the festival has had on jazz and America. The annual lecture is organized by Chris Fisher, executive director of the Portsmouth Institute. 

What began as founder George Wein’s Storyville, a popular Boston nightclub, became the jazz vanguard we all know today. According to Swain, Wein strategically introduced audiences to jazz by attracting popular headliners and placing jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald in the show. This explains, to the delight of audience, why Led Zeppelin played Newport in 1969. The festival, according to Glasner, played a role in legitimizing jazz as an artform, with its large audiences, sold-out shows and the first “rain-or-shine” policy any festival had ever seen. In addition, Wein held free educational panels and lectures during the day to increase appreciation for the genre.

Also, according to Glasner, the Newport Jazz Festival “challenged the norms and stretched peoples’ minds” during a tumultuous time in America. “The Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals have always been a reflection of what was going on in the greater social context,” he told the audience. In the ’50s and ’60s, performers flocked to Newport for the opportunity to express themselves musically and through their fashion choices in the judgment-free space that Wein had created. Interestingly, the 1969 Jazz Festival was the precursor to the infamous “Woodstock,” yet Glasner says more musicians found success from performing in Newport.

The nonprofit organization now finds itself at a new juncture in its nearly 70-year history, where music education and preservation will fuel the future. When asked how the Newport Jazz Festival can preserve its rich history while making space for progression in music, Glasner answered, “The tradition of our institution is about progression.” 

What is the best performance ever to grace the Jazz Festival, you might ask? Glasner would have to say, John Coltrane or Miles Davis. “Just look it up.”

Thank you to Ward Mooney ’67, who connected the Abbey with the Newport Festivals Foundation, and serves on the board for the organization. The foundation runs both the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals.