Newport Jazz Festival Gets New Vision With Christian McBride

Christian McBride is no stranger to the main stage at the and this year he’ll again be up there in a trio with pianist Chick Corea and drummer Brian Blade. But he’ll also be turning his attention to a new role backstage as he takes over as artistic director from festival founder George Wein.

The virtuoso bassist said Newport continues to be among the top festivals in the world, and he’s approaching his new role with the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Photo: Joe Giblin/AP, file
Fort Adams State Park on Narragansett Bay in Newport, R.I.

Wein founded the jazz festival in 1954 after tobacco heiress Elaine Lorillard asked him to liven up the quiet summer scene in the resort town dotted with Gilded Age mansions. It was the first outdoor jazz festival and has since inspired open-air music festivals around the world. In 1959, he founded the Newport Folk Festival.

Next weekend’s jazz fest, now held at the International Tennis Hall of Fame and at Fort Adams overlooking Narragansett Bay, is also scheduled to include performances by Gregory Porter, Norah Jones, Galactic and Angélique Kidjo.

Wein in 2010 established a nonprofit foundation with the plan to continue the festival long after he’s gone. While he is stepping away from duties picking the lineup at the jazz festival, he will remain involved.

“I understand that as long as George is alive, he’s always going to be the boss,” McBride, 44, said. “I would never go in in with guns blazing telling George what’s going to happen. … My plan is to take his palette and go with that.”

McBride was a great pick because he is involved in every aspect of the music, Wein said. He has a lengthy resume including five Grammys, and has been involved in small bands, big bands and everything in between. His numerous other projects include hosting NPR’s “Jazz Night in America.”

In McBride’s new role, which officially begins with next year’s festival, he will choose the artists while Danny Melnick will book them and work behind the scenes on the business side.

Wein, now 90, likes to say he presents jazz “from J to Z,” meaning the range of jazz styles.

“There’s no one word that describes it, no one period of music that describes it. It’s not New Orleans, it’s not traditional, it’s not swing. It’s everything that has come through historically, representing the world,” Wein said.

Saxophonist and composer Joe Lovano said Wein’s contribution to music can be seen today in other outdoor festivals, not to mention the many memorable performances in Newport.

“Look at all the beautiful Miles Davis moments at Newport through the years. Or John Coltrane’s performances at Newport in his short-lived life. Some of those later Coltrane moments are, like, really amazing,” he said. “At the time, (they) were a little far out and now, today, are like treasures.”

Lovano will perform this year as the co-leader of the John Scofield-Joe Lovano Quartet and is releasing an album of his 2005 performance there: Joe Lovano Quartet: Classic! Live At Newport, featuring legendary pianist Hank Jones, who died in 2010.

He’s excited to see what McBride does in Newport.

“Christian is a beautiful force in the music and so fun to play with and collaborate with through the years,” Lovano said.

McBride, who has played regularly at Newport since 1991, said he’s looking forward to taking some time to experience it for the first time this year as an audience member.

“Once I’m there, I’m expecting some sort of feeling to wash up on me. ‘This is it. She’s your baby now,’“ McBride said. “At least I’ll be able to say I have joint custody of this child now.”