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Newport Jazz 2021 has certainly been a major success. With leading artists like Andra Day, Trombone Shorty, and Mavis Staples, sold-out shows, and perfect weather, 2021 will be a Festival to remember.
Still, the jazz genre often struggles commercially as a popular art form. So what’s the best way to strengthen jazz music and build the audience?
We asked that question to Christian McBride, Artistic Director of the Newport Jazz Festival, and the person responsible for booking many of the artists who played the event.
It’s a pretty simple answer according to McBride. “Make it fun,” he suggests. “There’s a certain human spiritual fun aspect about this music, every other so-called genre of music kind of focuses on it. We get way too deep in the weeds of intellectualizing, analyzing. There’s this subliminal message that you’re smarter than the rest of them if you like this music. We gotta cut that out.”
We spoke to McBride on the second day of the Festival, following a particularly strong opening day. A bright spot this year was seeing so many younger fans. In fact, according to Festival officials, over 800 student tickets were sold for the first day, almost 20% of the total number of tickets available.
“I know that’s been a broader conversion in jazz circles for quite some time, and not just here,” noted McBride. “We want to somehow make this music more appealing to a younger audience. One of the tried and true ways of doing that is to book a band that’s going to hook them, somebody like Khruangbin or Cory Wong…They’ll come here and say we got a three-day pass, we’ll see Trombone Shortly and Andra Day. And then who is Immanuel Wilkins, and who is Kenny Garrett? That’s the way we bring in younger audiences and school them about the legends that are here.”
McBride, who has appeared on over 300 recordings as a leader and sideman, is a well-known bass player who brings his own band to Fort Adams. The seven-time Grammy Award-winner shared some thoughts on why the Newport Jazz Festival is so unique. “There’s a history to this Festival unlike any other. This tends to be a bucket list festival for most artists,” he remarked.
Like many others present at Fort Adams, McBride recognized the absence of longtime Festival Producer George Wein, who was unable to attend this year due to health concerns.
“His absence is felt. He’s been the guiding force of this Festival since the beginning. We miss him. He’s not involved day to day anymore, but because of who he is, we always run things by him … it’s like, hey Godfather, does this meet your approval?” joked McBride. “At this point, he’s like, look man, you all run the show, just do it!”