Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | April 12, 2021

THE 1971 NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL 

JULY 2, 3 & 4 (well, almost), 1971

Put on your colors and run come see

Everybody’s sayin’ that music’s for free

– “Music is Love” by David Crosby, released February, 1971

1

GETTING THERE

Sometime in mid-June, 1971 I presented my father with a proposition: if he would loan me some money and the use of a car to go to the Newport Jazz Festival over the July 4th weekend, I would get a job as soon as I returned and pay him back. This seemed like a reasonable proposal to me.  I felt I was basically an honorable guy and had every intention of doing exactly what I promised.  Of course, no mention was made by either of us of the fact that I had somehow failed to reimburse him the money spent to bail me out of jail and pay my disorderly conduct fine back in December. I was 18 years old.

My father countered with his own proposal: get a job now and save up my own money to go to the rock festival (“it’s a Jazz Festival, Dad, not a rock festival”) and then he would let me use the car. This, I explained to him, would not work since the Jazz Festival was happening in a couple of weeks I didn’t have time to get a job and save money before I went to it, nor would any job that I did get be likely to give me time off to go to a Jazz Festival so soon after being hired.

“Well then, boy (he always addressed me as “boy”), I guess you’ll have to go to the next one.”

This was not acceptable. I was clearly going to need to find another way to get there. So Dickie and I modified our plans to hitchhike to the festival instead of driving. Simple. Problem solved.

Still, I did need some kind of money. We went down to Cleveland Stadium and got day jobs selling things during the baseball game. I was 18 and so was able to sell beer (3.2 only, which was all they sold at the stadium then) but Dickie, being a couple of years younger, was restricted to selling soda pop. Beer was much more lucrative and I ended up making $19.20 that day, a goodly sum for 1971, most of which went to buy supplies for the trip. I then hung my hopes on Stone Advertising, a company that hired people as independent contractors to deliver advertising fliers door-to-door B it paid $12 a day. The work was sporadic, at best, and depended on being there on the right day at the right time but time was short. The festival would not wait for us. We had to leave when the time came, money or not.

It was drizzling when we left Cleveland. Dickie’s mother drove us to the freeway entrance early in the morning and, slipping Dickie some money, she wished us good luck and drove away. She knew exactly what we were doing and, while she may not have entirely approved, she did nothing to stand in our way.

There is always that moment at the beginning of a hitchhiking trip, standing there alone and looking at all the passing cars, all those total strangers, when I would wonder if this was really such a great idea. Dickie had no such doubts, they did not seem to be part of his constitution. His thumb went out, pointing east, and before we could even get very wet a car pulled over and we were on our way to Newport.

We were very lucky with rides on this leg of the trip. That first one took us deep into upstate New York dropping us off at a rest area where we were able to catch another ride which took us all the way into Rhode Island. While we were at the rest area, and it now being early evening, I decided it was probably time to call home and let them know where I was and that I was OK.

Mom answered the phone. She was very upset. I told her where we were and where we were going. She said that they already knew. When I did not come home with the car by early afternoon they called Dickie’s house and spoke with his mother. She was pretty surprised to find out that they didn’t know what we were doing. Dad drove mom over to Dickie’s house to pick up the car. Dickie’s mother was as casual about our little adventure with my parents as she had been with us. She told them not to worry. She could have saved her breath. Mom said to me, “I hope you like it wherever you’re going because Dad says you can’t come back here anymore.” I thought she was being a little melodramatic but had to consider the possibility that she meant it. Of course I didn’t really have too much time to mull that over because we soon got that next ride and were back on our way.

Eventually the guy who was giving us a ride picked up another hitchhiker, an AWOL soldier who was also on his way to the Newport festival. He had been there before and, as he told us what we could expect we became more and more excited.

The three of us were dropped off on the mainland end of the bridge over Narragansett Bay. It was a toll bridge and there were cops sitting around the toll plaza so it was not a comfortable place to hitchhike. The soldier knew another route and led us around the toll plaza and underneath the bridge entrance to a place where we could climb up the girders and onto the bridge itself far enough beyond the toll plaza that our chances of being seen were minimal. It was the middle of the night, the sky was cloudy, the air was cool and a breeze blowing strong carried my first true breaths of salt air. We walked out until we were in the middle of the bridge above the dark waters and there we found a stairway that went down to a platform beneath the bridge surface. We settled down there and the soldier pulled out a fat joint. He said he had been saving it for just this moment. We smoked that joint on the platform suspended above the barely visible choppy waters of Narragansett Bay with the rumble of the traffic overhead. This was my first encounter with salt water and the Bay seemed immense. Suitably stoned, we climbed back up to the bridge surface. The soldier put out his thumb and flagged us down a ride like he’d scheduled it in advance.

The guys who picked us up were naval officers but they didn’t seem to care about what we were doing in the middle of the bridge so late at night. The AWOL soldier was made more than a little nervous by the situation but the naval officers just didn’t seem very curious about anything. They dropped us at a deserted strip mall near the festival grounds in the early morning hours. There we parted ways with the AWOL soldier, wishing each other luck. He had arranged a place to stay and told us that we could crash on the sidewalk here at the strip mall without any problems. Then, assuring each other we would run into each other again during the course of the festival, we went our separate ways. We never saw him again, but sharing that joint with him in the middle of the bridge over Narragansett Bay remains one of the most memorable high points, so to speak, of this whole trip. Dickie and I went around the side of the strip mall, found a suitably out-of-the-way place and bedded down for what remained of the night, our first at Newport.

2
BEING THERE

We woke that first morning at Newport a little achy from sleeping on the cement, moist with the morning dew, and smelling faintly of salt. There was already activity around us as we climbed out of our sleeping bags; what seemed an out-of-the-way spot in the late night darkness became a center of activity in the morning light. People were gathering, talking, waiting for the stores to open. It was starting to get pretty crowded. I forget how we dealt with going to the bathroom that morning, but we did somehow. And once we got our gear packed up again we got something cheap to eat for breakfast and started panhandling with really good luck. We got some money but mostly what many folks did was share food, give us bottles of juice, cigarettes (I was a smoker then), wine, and joints. We were quite pleased with ourselves.

After our morning panhandling and getting settled in we scoped out the festival grounds, Festival Field, hiking up the hill behind it to take a look around and then went searching for the box office to buy our tickets for the Festival. When I read the ad in Cleveland it said that the evening concerts were five dollars and the afternoon concerts were four dollars. So Dickie and I each had nine dollars set aside to pay for general admission to the whole festival. In retrospect this was incredibly naïve, but at the time it seemed to make sense to us. Four dollars and five dollars were fair amounts of money in 1971. When we got to the box office we were shocked to find that it was five dollars general admission for each of the three evening concerts, and the Sunday afternoon concert, and it was four dollars for each of the other two afternoon concerts – this was a total of $33 apiece. Just getting one of us into the whole festival would cost more than every penny the two of us had put together. We were looking at a lot of panhandling. In the end we decided to get seven dollar reserved seats for the Sunday evening concert which was a salute to the blues with Ray Charles, B.B. King, the Allman Brothers and a bunch of other great acts. We figured that we could just watch the rest of the festival from the hill behind the festival grounds. That hill, part of Miantonomi Park (I would much later learn the name, though I did not know it at the time), formed a natural amphitheater from which we could see the stage and, we hoped, be able to hear well enough.

We spent the rest of the day until the first evening concert wandering around, talking to people and just getting the lay of the land. We found there were a lot of people there who weren’t buying any tickets at all. Some of them had been there before and knew that the hill was a fine place to catch all the festivities and were happy with that. Others expected something Woodstock-like to occur so they could get in free.

Most of the people we spoke to knew nothing about jazz at all they just seemed to be there because it was the place to be, or at least it was a place to be. They didn’t seem too interested in the music. Some were more interested in scoring drugs, others in getting laid, others just seemed to want to make the scene, and still others didn’t seem to know what they were doing there as though they been dropped like Dorothy into the Oz of the jazz festival.

It seemed as though everyone we met either had food, alcohol, or pot to share. It felt like the universe was taking care of us. We pretty much kept a good buzz on all that day and into the night. The cops were friendly and helpful and the merchants seemed to welcome our business. More and more people were showing up all day and we had the feeling that we were on to something good.

We met two girls that afternoon and hung out with them for quite a while. Dickie was determined to get laid, I was determined to hear as much music as possible. We were with these girls on the hill when the evening concert began. The Dave Pike Set started it off, and they were good. There were then three big jazz orchestras that night, Duke Ellington’s, Stan Kenton’s, and Buddy Rich’s. Most of the folks we encountered on the hill were completely uninterested in this music – it felt like their parents’ music or their grandparents’ music. Old people’s music. I thought it was pretty damn good. As I write this I’m listening to a CD of the Stan Kenton Orchestra recorded that night. Maybe I liked this stuff because I liked orchestral music as well as rock and folk music. The big attraction for me on that first night was Roberta Flack. I had her first two albums and loved them, especially her versions of Eugene McDaniels’ songs “Rev. Dr. Lee” and “Compared to What.” She was great!

In 2012 I connected via e-mail with a gentleman, Anthony “Tony” Agosnitelli, who wrote a book about the Newport Jazz Festival through 1971 (“The Newport Jazz Festival, Rhode Island, 1954‑1971: A significant era in the development of jazz”). He graciously provided me with a digital copy when I was researching this story. There was a lot of good information in it, mostly about the festivals leading up to 1971. Among other things, he had this to say in an e-mail to me: “I was there on Friday, July 2, 1971 with my next door neighbors.  We could see the images of people on the hill south of Festival Field, moving about…fires which had been built…the smell of grass wafting over the audience…we left after the Stan Kenton orchestra played (Stan was not there leading). As we were leaving, a crowd of young people were trying to get into the events without an admission ticket. We were approached as we walked to our car by many out‑of‑it people asking for money, a hit, and being generally disgusting. The smell of grass remained with us, on our clothes, for several days afterward. We anticipated that something would happen ‑‑ and it did.”

I’d often wondered how it felt to be a paying member of the audience that Saturday night. Mr. Agosnitelli has given me insight into that and I appreciate it very much.

After a while the girls wandered off and when the show was over Dickie and I found a spot to stretch out our sleeping bags and crashed. The next morning was more of the same. We did some panhandling over at the strip mall and as it approached afternoon I convinced Dickie that we should skip the afternoon concert and go to the beach. This was not a hard sell since he wasn’t really into jazz and nothing we’d heard so far had changed his mind. In retrospect that decision is one of the few things in my life I truly regret because I missed the only chance I ever got to hear Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus. But at the time I had never seen an ocean and I felt drawn to it. Since I knew their names but did not then know the music of either Coleman or Mingus I had no idea what I was missing until years later.

So we hitchhiked out to a place called Second Beach, and I got my first look at an ocean. I was impressed, this was not Lake Erie. It didn’t even feel like a bigger version of Lake Erie. It felt completely different. And it smelled different. The waves were bigger, and carried more gravitas.

We spent a good bit of the day exploring the beach, even going in the water. It was enough to make me happy. As it got on toward evening we headed back, hitchhiking back to the festival grounds for that night’s concert.

From my diary: “i’m drunk – sat in front of the shopping center bummin’ today after we came back from the beach – i finally got to see an ocean and swim in it – it’s beautiful – we bummed $3.31 a pack 2 of butts some Apricot Nector (it was good) peaches and enough booze to get me nice and bombed which i am at the time of this writing -”

Before the evening concerts started we met Pat and Michael, a married hippie couple with 2 small children, little girls 4 yrs. and 4 mos. old. We’d been scouting out a place to settle for the night and they picked up on our naivety as we wandered around. We started talking and soon they invited us to share the small camp they had set up with a carefully tended fire pit, promising us hot coffee in the morning. Dickie and I set down our packs and laid out sleeping bags, staking claim to our spots on the hillside. Looking down on Festival Field was like an upper balcony view of the stage, we were pleased.

Pat and Michael, who had been to the festival before and knew the ins and outs of it all, began to guide us through the experience. They also had some fine pot they were not shy about sharing.

Pat and Michael assured us that they would watch over our stuff if we wanted to go down and get a little closer. So Dickie and I headed down the hill as the concert was starting. The first act was Chase. I don’t remember too much about them except thinking that they sounded kind of like Blood Sweat & Tears, a little rock oriented. But I remember enjoying them. While they were playing Dickie and I were looking for a place to settle in for the show. Eventually we saw people climbing a tree which was close to the peripheral fence for the festival grounds and we decided to try that.

The tree worked great. We were able to get comfortable in it and there were a bunch of other folks up there already. Bottles of alcohol were being passed around, and joints, so we managed to sustain the buzz we already had. By the time the Dave Brubeck Quartet came on we were all settled in and ready. Which is a good thing, because they blew us away, or at least they blew me away. I was never quite sure how Dickie felt about the music we heard there but I became a lifelong Dave Brubeck fan that night. And Gerry Mulligan was amazing. I had heard of Brubeck but was unfamiliar with his music. I had never heard of Mulligan before. And I had never heard “Take 5” before; that one really caught me. This was all new to me and I was soaking it up as fast as I could.

In a very short time those of us up in the tree became a kind of family, and all got comfortable almost as though we had grown there like fruit. Below us crowds of people were moving around on the asphalt road that curved around the outside of the official festival grounds. Everything seemed peaceful and mellow and we were ready to enjoy ourselves.

The next act to come on was Dionne Warwick. Of course I was familiar with her hit singles, she’d had quite a few of them by that time, so I was looking forward to hearing her perform. She was good, the back-up band was hot but not intrusive and she had the audience in her thrall. But it was during her set that I remember the trouble began.

All along the length of the chain link fence separating the festival grounds from the hill, people had been climbing the fence, or attempting to, all evening. Then, almost directly beneath us, some folks grabbed onto the fence and started pulling on it, back and forth, then more and more people joined them, pulling and pulling on the fence until finally they pulled that section loose from the posts and it came down. They then went after the wooden fence which was inside the chain link one. It was easier to push over. First walking and then running, folks went over top of the fallen fences into Festival Field. Unknown to us this was also happening at another spot further away where we couldn’t see.

I don’t know how aware Dionne Warwick was of this, or when she became aware of it, but there was a flood of people now pouring into Festival Field. Dionne began singing one song after another about peace and love with the band taking barely a pause between songs. I believe she was trying to chill everyone out as things were starting to get a little tense. And people were starting to sway and sing along with her. The audience on the official festival grounds was swelling with people pouring in through the holes in the fence. It must indeed have been scary to the folks inside (middle & upper middle class folks mostly, who could afford the tickets and rooms in the local expensive motel/hotels – folks who surely felt they had something to lose here), this invasion of unwashed (where were we going to wash? The ocean?), mostly-stoned and drunk hippies. But Dionne was doing really well keeping people mellow and if they’d just continued the show I believe everything would have been fine. In spite of her later AIDS charity rip-off scandal, and her late night psychic hotline infomercials I retain a certain level of respect for Warwick solely because of what she tried to do that night.

Then an announcer, I believe it was George Wein, came out and stopped Dionne and the band. Wein is the jazz concert and festival promoter who produced the Newport Jazz Festival as well as producing other festivals and concerts around the country. He took the mic and started talking about “this very serious situation we have here” meaning the people rushing in. He told them all to leave slowly, that the concert for that night was over, and if everything was peaceful the festival would continue the next day. Everyone leaving was, of course, not going to happen.

Without Dionne singing her songs of universal love the crowd began to get restless, mostly the invaders. The mood was changing and instead of the interlopers leaving, it was the people with tickets who left – they were, after all, in the middle of this battle of wills between the capitalist concert promoter and the ever-growing mob of music-loving anarcho-hippies. It could not have been a comfortable place to be.

Dionne had long left the stage, but her band remained in place for a little while, probably in case she came back. Finally, they took their instruments and left the stage as well. Once that happened, we could see from our arboreal vantage point, that it was the remaining people in the seats, the ones who had paid to be there, who were leaving. Those folks were trying to avoid the confrontation, which was starting to seem inevitable. It was sinking in to everyone that there was no way the concert was going to continue. Sets by Mary Lou Williams, Illinois Jacquet, and an all-star jam session, led by Jimmy Smith, were clearly not going to happen. The ticketholders were carefully picking their way through the increasingly agitated crowd of invaders and on to their cars.

Periodically an angry Wein would take a microphone and re-state his position and his determination to shut the whole festival down if people didn’t leave. He was determined that no one was getting into his festival for free; no one would take over his festival. I found out much later, when I read his memoir, that he even resented the people peacefully sitting on the hill. He thought he had a deal with the Newport police to keep people off of that hill and felt betrayed when the police let people stay there. But I think the police were happy just to keep us all on the hill and out of town.

From our tree we had a great view of everything that was happening and we were getting scared ourselves. The increasingly rowdy crowd was tossing folding chairs around and surging toward the stage.

Somewhere around that time, before any of the real trouble started, Dickie and I, stoned and drunk, climbed down out of the tree. We picked our way through the throng of people crossing the downed fences and ventured into Festival Field. The energy there was not good so we did not stay but turned around and headed back up the hill where Pat and Michael were still there around the small campfire with our stuff. We were operating on the mistaken presumption that the police would do nothing to harm women and children.

And that is where we were when the riot began.

All the ticketed concertgoers had vacated the grounds. The swelling crowd of crashers was clapping, stomping, improbably shouting out the Crowd Rain Chant from Woodstock as though that might justify what they were doing. As though it were a magic incantation to bring them under the umbrella of the already failed and faded Summer of Love.

The crowd was in constant motion, a rising undulating tidal wave of destruction, folding chairs and other detritus bobbing about the surface like flotsam and jetsam from the wreak of the concert, rushed toward them and crashed against the stage finally, breaking over it, incorporating the stage into the general anarchy of the long moment, swallowing it like a hard tide coming in over a rocky coast.

Off to one side was the sound booth with long windows facing onto the stage and audience. The festival was being recorded. (I would later obtain albums of Dave Brubeck’s and the Stan Kenton Orchestra’s sets.) The door had been locked from the inside and we could see people trapped, cowering within, clearly fearing for their lives as the crowd pushed and pulled on the door to no avail.

The stage now held a seething mass of humanity tearing apart everything it encountered. Sheet music was tossed into the air like giant confetti, equipment was being stolen and carted off. People started running up the hill past us carrying folding chairs and stage equipment. One guy came up the hill, stopped at the campfire with a microphone stand in his hands. Panting he looked back and forth among the 4 of us and said over and over: “Look what I got! Look what I got!” Then, having sufficiently caught his breath, he started back at a run further up the hill with his purloined booty.

The appearance of this guy at our campfire seriously spooked Pat and Michael, who grew concerned for their young children. They began talking about leaving. Meanwhile the chaos at the bottom of the hill continued for what seemed like an awfully long time before we saw flashing lights appear at both ends of the road which bordered the festival grounds.

The police had finally arrived, as we knew they eventually would. They came marching in with gas masks and billy clubs out. We could catch whiffs of tear gas, could see people being beaten.

The crowd energy subtly changed as folks slowly became aware of the police presence. Those on the outskirts, closest to the police cars, began to run away from the festival grounds and the hill was really the only place to run, so a lot of them came toward us.

We could hear bullhorns but not make out what was being said.

Most of the mob, however, either weren’t aware of what was happening yet or didn’t care. They kept going as though they’d not heard last call issue and kept drinking the intoxicant of the crowd’s power. The cops were sounding their sirens in short bursts, like a Morse code message to get out but nothing much was happening in response.

Mobs can reach a point where they feel indestructible, immune to any attempt to stop them. They do irrational things which most of the individuals involved would never do on their own. In this case they ignored every attempt by the police to peacefully disburse them. Years later when I read Elias Canetti’s “Crowds and Power” I kept thinking about the mob at Newport that night as Canetti described the workings and psychology of a crowd. It all seemed to fit.

More police were showing up. Pat and Michael began to gather their stuff, getting ready to break camp. They understandably wanted to keep the kids away from any harm and it was no longer feeling safe on the hill. When the first whiff of tear gas reached us, we said our goodbyes and they were gone. Dickie and I were sorry to see them go. They had been particularly nice to us, inviting us festival neophytes to share their veterans’ camp. Besides we somehow felt safer with their small family than we did alone.

When the police began to volley more tear gas at them the mob got angry. If there was a single moment when it all turned into a riot, this was it. The mob seemed to turn on each other as much as on the police. The way a crowd escaping from a burning nightclub will trample underfoot those who stumble or can’t keep up. But, from our vantage point that sort of panic didn’t seem to last long. Slowly they began to move, mostly up the hill. It took a long time for the crowd to start to scatter because there were only so many avenues of escape open to them which avoided contact with the police.

When the tear gas began to get stronger Dickie & I moved further up the hill to get above it. Small campfires all across the hillside were slowing dying out as people chose to move on to safer places. We didn’t know if the cops, once they’d quelled the riot, were going to advance up the hill after us or not but it didn’t really matter; we had nowhere else to go.

Here’s some of what I wrote in my diary the next day: “what we saw [last night] scared the hell out of us – … – the police came in riot gear with tear gas and clubs a lot of people were getting hurt and i heard that one girl was run over by a police car that didn’t even stop – after more than an hour the people came off the stage but then it all moved into the street and hills – people yelling at cops – cops yelling back – walkie talkies sounding their mechanical orders and the people frightened angry not really knowing what to do – … – the sound of glass breaking was everywhere and we didn’t know if it was bottles or police car windows – there were sirens and red flashing lights people running up the [hill] telling us to hide in the woods they were using more tear gas – and firecrackers everywhere any one of which could have been a gun shot thank god none were – kids building up arsonals [sic] of rocks and bottles but then things calmed a little -”

People kept making their way uphill all around us, would almost trip over us, some of them hurt and bloody from being beaten. Sometimes they’d stop at a fading fire to warm up as much as they could, once away from the heat of the crowd they’d discover how cold the night had become and most of them were only wearing shorts and t-shirts.

The rioting continued into the night, occasionally coming close, but never quite overtaking us. It then slowly receded as the police advanced into the mob. As the fires burned themselves out, so did the riot. I finally fell into a fitful sleep. The woven smells of woodsmoke and teargas hung in the night air.

3

GETTING OUT

Dickie and I woke the next morning when the first light hit our sleeping bags. If I had a hangover, I don’t remember it. There was way too much to deal with too quickly that morning to indulge in the luxury of a hangover. Looking around the hillside in the creeping dawn we could see that most folks were still asleep, cocooned into their bags or curled together beneath dirty, tattered blankets. There was something in the cool morning air, a kind of hyper-oxygenation in the gentle salt breeze, a light haze formed from still-smoldering campfires and lingering tear gas, an electricity vibrated around the edges of everything like a kirlian photograph in motion showing the aura left by the events of the previous night. Under everything else lay the lively energy of the music we’d heard before things went south. At that point we still believed the music would start again in the afternoon leading up to the big blues concert that night, for which we actually had tickets.

We were still groggy and thinking about rolling up the bags and searching out some breakfast. We looked down the hill at the utter mess that used to be the festival grounds and stage. It certainly looked like a riot had happened down there, both fences were on the ground and the whole place was totally trashed. We were glad we got up the hill before the riot started.

That was when we saw lines of police, billy clubs in hand, approaching the bottom of the hill from both sides. They proceeded to use the billy clubs to abruptly and definitively wake the sleeping hippies, who were clearly not happy about it.

Dickie and I immediately started packing and by the time the cops got within hearing distance we were ready to go, we just didn’t know where. The cop who approached us had an answer ready. We had 30 minutes to get off the island or we’d be arrested.

“But,” I rashly protested, “we have tickets for the concert tonight.”

“Ain’t gonna be no concert here tonight,” said the annoyed cop, “maybe never. Now get going.” He then moved on to the next folks. In the meantime, just in case anyone thought they weren’t serious, there were police cars lined up at the bottom of the hill and a cop on a bullhorn was announcing over and over in a droning voice: “You people have 30 minutes to get off this island.”

Dickie and I began to walk downhill talking over what we should do. We decided to go to the festival office to get a refund on our tickets for that night’s concert; no matter where we went we were going to need money. Of course the ticket office was closed. We sat on the ground by the door for a while, waiting for the office to open. Then police came over the hill and ordered us to be gone in 10 minutes. We were told that refunds wouldn’t be given until Tuesday or else through the mail. We were not happy about this, but there was nothing to be done. Hungry and frightened we decided to just go home. We found an appropriate piece of cardboard nearby, wrote a big CLEVELAND on it, and headed for the road to the bridge.

One look at that road and we knew that no one was getting off that island in 30 minutes. It was bumper to bumper traffic slowly, almost imperceptively, moving in the general direction of the Newport Bridge. And lining the shoulder of that road, packed nearly as tight, was a long line of hitchhikers; thumbs out, signs in hand, desperation on their faces. We sighed, found a gap in the line and stuck out our thumbs.

Breakfast consisted of some candy bars and such which we had in our packs. I don’t remember exactly how much money we had between us, but it was not much. The day started to warm up as car after car passed us by. It was getting uncomfortably hot with no way to get out of the sun. Passengers would sometimes shrug, or shake their heads sympathetically as they went by. We figured we were more likely to get picked up by the police then by a ride going toward Cleveland.

We started to notice that people who had signs saying BOSTON were getting picked up pretty quickly. We talked about it, turned the cardboard over, and wrote BOSTON on the back. Within a few minutes a car picked us up and we were on our way to Boston. We weren’t sure what we were going to do once we got to Boston but at least we were getting off the island, saying goodbye to Newport.

In Boston we ended up crashing at a hippie commune in the Roxbury district, in a row house which had once been a bordello. We stayed there for a couple of weeks. But that is another story. This story is about the 1971 Newport Jazz Festival and it is now over. Except for one footnote: a few weeks later we hitchhiked back to Newport and went straight to the festival office for the sole reason of cashing in our tickets for the salute to the blues night. We were given full refunds with no questions asked.

4

PROCESSING IT

On July 3, 2003 I heard Terry Gross interviewing George Wein (1925-2021) on the radio. Wein was the jazz concert and festival promoter who produced the Newport Jazz Festival as well as producing other festivals and concerts around the country, if not the world. He was promoting his recently published memoir. She asked him about the 1971 Newport Festival which, as she tactfully put it, “ended prematurely.” His voice changed from the solicitous thank-you-Terry-I’m-so-glad-to-be-here to a sharply arrogant tone full of self-righteousness. His anger, even after all that time, was evident and clear. He then told his story of the riot; denying that there was a “riot” at his festival.

Wein told Gross that there were no rock festivals happening that year so all the hippies looking for “free music” came to Newport and ruined his festival. He said the police had assured him they would keep people off of the hill behind the festival grounds, but that they then “betrayed” him and let people stay there in order to keep them out of town (probably true). He says he spoke with some of the hippies through the cyclone fence and they told him they were going to take over the festival and open it up for “the people” because music should be free.

He said that they eventually tore down the fence and took over the stage. He made it sound like an organized conspiracy. He said he had to close the festival down because those people refused to leave.

After hearing that interview, I started writing this memoir to tell things from the point of view of someone who was there, who saw things George Wein never did and never wanted to.

There definitely was a riot but it didn’t start moving in that direction until Wein closed down the show. That was what set up the riot. If Mr. Wein doesn’t think there was a riot there that night he obviously missed out on the generous applications of tear gas the rest of us enjoyed for much of the evening following his departure.

If Mr. Wein had simply let things go on that night, let the people who had come through the broken down fence stay, and completed the show, he could have then, the next day, dealt with things and it would all have been fine except for his bruised ego. He could have repaired the fences, beefed up security, and evicted anyone who didn’t have tickets. They would not have been happy, but there would not have been a riot and the festival could have continued. People are, I think, less prone to rioting in the morning when they are hung over. Instead he asserted this big power trip and insisted that everyone without a ticket leave that minute, something which was obviously not going to happen.

The idea that music should be “free” for “the people” probably originated with the free concerts in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco during the Summer of Love. I remember lots of free concerts in those days, even in Cleveland where I spent those years. But in retrospect most of those were promotional events for a specific band, label, or radio station. They were not really “free,” they were a form of advertising. There was a lot of advertising involved in “free” concerts and often stalls/spaces were rented to merchants and craftsmen to generate income. Artists deserve to be paid for their work just like anyone else, musicians included. (Dare I add poets?) And somebody has to do the work of arranging, and paying in advance for a venue, advertising, hiring staff, all the things we don’t think about when we think about going to a concert. For a promoter each concert is a gamble which requires that money be put out up front for, what one hopes will be, a worthy payday at the end.

The situation at Newport was a commercial, business deal between the producer, the venue, and the musicians, each had their job to do. A lot of tickets were sold for that festival. It had been going on annually at least since 1954, so one can presume that it was profitable.

The question is, what did it hurt to have some people on the hill behind Festival Field enjoying what they could see and hear from that distance? Once the tickets had been bought and the enterprise paid for why not let some folks watch from a distance for free? You might say that wouldn’t be fair to the paying customers. But the folks who paid were getting much better seats for their money, closer with superior sound. Who were we hurting up on that hill? Not the artists, because we didn’t have the money for tickets anyway so they weren’t losing anything. In fact the artists were gaining fans, like me, who fell in love with what they heard and proceeded to buy records and concert tickets in the future (I paid to see Dave Brubeck & Gerry Mulligan with Herbie Mann later that same summer, after I got home and got a job, and I have bought many recordings over the years). So it could easily be seen as an investment. Besides the good will it generated.

So, was George Wein’s attitude toward it one of greed or spite?

Until that night Newport had welcomed us warmly. I remember there was a strip mall near to the festival grounds (where we slept the night we arrived) and an outside water faucet bore a sign from the store’s manager inviting people to use it and there was usually a line of folks queueing up to fill various salvaged containers. The stores were open and doing booming business. We spent time in town and on the beaches. Nowhere had anyone been anything less than welcoming and friendly. Even the police had been friendly and open to conversation, until that night.

I remain convinced that Wein had, what is called in law, the “last clear chance” to avoid what happened, and he chose not to take it.

http://legal‑dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Last+Clear+Chance

I agree with him, there were a lot of stoned-out, drunken assholes there who had no idea about jazz and wandered around with Woodstock in their eyes trying to make sure they weren’t being left out of the next big defining cultural moment, not realizing that it had all passed them by already and died at Altamont.

I remember speaking with people who, out of over 30 performers on the schedule, recognized only the Allman Brothers Band. Folks who had no idea who Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton or Dizzy Gillespie were. At that time I may not have been too familiar with their music either (Davis being the only one whose music I knew with any degree of familiarity, and that primarily being the Bitches Brew fusion stuff, which I loved), but at least I knew who these people were and that they were important and I really wanted to hear them play.

So I too was angry at those idiots for ruining everything. And yes, I did feel that the folks who broke down the fences were drunken assholes who simply wanted to start trouble. One could see good enough and hear quite well from Miantonomi Hill behind the Festival Field where we had all been allowed to set up camps for free, it acted like a natural amphitheater; there was no reason to break into the festival grounds itself. But even given all that, the one person who could ultimately have avoided the riot itself and allowed the festival to continue, who had the last clear chance to avoid a riot, was George Wein, and he refused to do that. In my mind, the ultimate responsibility for that riot and the end of the festival falls squarely on his head. He could have avoided it. He chose not to.

Mr. Wein’s version of what happened, from his perspective, can be found in his memoir, “Myself Among Others: A Life In Music.”

begun as a letter to Jim Lang 07/04/03, Santa Rosa

revisions begun 01/06/10, Sebastopol

revisions continued 2020, Sebastopol &

draft completed 04/11-12/2021, Santa Rosa


Responses

  1. The girl run over by the police officer was Susan Beth Salo of Stamford, CT ..She was there with friends and was hit by officer Corporal Edwin Silvia …who was never charged…She had once been a close friend of mine…I still miss her a great deal……

    • Mr. Renoud: Thank you for your comment and I am very sorry to hear about your friend. We were never sure if that actually happened or not, it was something we heard about the next day, one of many rumors passed around. I am sorry to find out, all these years later, that it did happen. Thank you again for telling me. – Joe

      • Mr. Renoud: I am thinking that, with your permission of course, I would like to include the information about Ms. Salo in the story itself so people who read it but might not read the comments will know who she was, that she had a name. Would you be OK with that? I would just quote from your comment, with attribution. Let me know if that would be OK. Thank you, joe


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