Photo of 1954 Newport Jazz Festival via Newport Jazz Festival
The first Newport Jazz Festival, known as the First Annual American Jazz Festival, was held on July 17th and July 18th, 1954 at the Newport Casino. The two day event featured academic panel discussions and live music performances from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lee Konitz, Eddie Condon and many more.
Thirteen thousand fans attended the inaugural event and the festival was regarded as a great success, the festival would move to Freebody Park in 1955.
An excerpt from How Newport Jazz Began by George Wein:
“The first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 set the formula for all major jazz festivals to follow. Popular artists were the attractions that sold tickets, but it was the important unsung jazz heroes from the traditional to avant-garde that attracted the critics and gave the festival an artistic credibility.
In 1954, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Gene Krupa, George Shearing, and Billie Holiday were popular jazz artists of the day. The program included tributes and reunions, which are commonplace nowadays. Panels treated the academic approach to the music. This formula, commercialism blended with artistic credibility, continues to this day. The difference is that as the great names in jazz passed away, the Ellingtons, Armstrongs, Fitzgeralds, etc. it had been necessary to sometimes use crossover groups that reflect many aspects of American popular music that do not necessarily reflect the purity of jazz. Yet, these artists sell tickets and all festival producers know that without people, there is no festival.
The two sellout crowds created national press coverage and the festival received a world-wide response. The whole town of Newport was talking about what had happened at the historic Newport Casino.”