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America's first jazz festival comes home

By KEN FRANCKLING

NEWPORT, R.I. -- The stage was set Friday overlooking sailboat-dotted Newport Harbor for the low-key weekend homecoming of the Newport Jazz Festival, 10 years after riots chased America's first jazz extravaganza out of town.

'It's so bloody beautiful it's just wonderful,' George Wein, who promoted the original festival in 1954, said Friday as he surveyed the festival site at historic Fort Adams State Park.

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Wein, who parlayed a modest Newport beginning into a world-wide empire of festival productions, said he was happy to be back home in Newport, where Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson and Billie Holiday starred and the musical fireworks known as the 'jam session' went public.

'I didn't realize how much I missed it for the last 10 years,' Wein said. 'I wanted to get back to the beginnings.'

The talent appearing this weekend includes many of the star-quality musicians who help turn the event into a world famous event with Dixieland, swing and be-bop.

Music buffs will sit on bleachers or picnic blanket-style on the rolling seaside greenery of Fort Adams -- an Army garrison built in 1799 as a key coastal defense point.

That's a far cry from the late '60s when up to 20,000 music fans jammed the old Festival Field -- since demolished -- for day and night performances. It was moved to New York City in 1972 after riots in 1960, 1969 and 1971.

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The 1981 Newport Jazz Festival is a more austere festival with a very different atmosphere. Tickets are strictly limited to 5,000 for each day and the noon to 6:30 p.m. performances will be played to a rexed setting.

Wein said he expected to sell about 4,000 tickets for Saturday's performance, and a sellout on Sunday when some of the greatest names in jazz are on the card.

The Saturday talent lineup includes pyrotechnic drummer Buddy Rich and his band; drummer Mel Lewis and his orchestra with guest sax man Zoot Sims; the Dexter Gordon Quartet with guest trumpeter Art Farmer; percussionist piano player McCoy Tyner; and the Classic Jazz Band of Vic Dickenson, Dick Hyman, Bob Wilber, Major Holley, Oliver Jackson, Doc Cheatham and guest cornetist Ruby Braff.

Sunday's roster includes the father of be-bop, Dizzy Gillespie with his wacky up-turned trumpet, quartet and guest vibes player Milt Jackson; a salute to Lionel Hampton and his All-Star Orchestra; singer Nancy Wilson; pianist Dave Brubeck -- the star of the original 1954 festival; and Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers with guests Al Grey, Buddy Tate, and Mike Renzi.

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