Note: In 2015, Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams prepared this piece for the Newport Jazz Festival blog. We’re re-posting an edited version today in honor of George Wein.

Daily headlines remind us that the nation is still struggling with its legacy of slavery, prejudice, and discrimination. The Newport Jazz Festival (along with its sister festival Newport Folk), was designed as a unifying event where artists and fans could escape from the world around them and simply enjoy the music.

How did the Newport Jazz Festival, held in a bastion of privileged white society, a city once at the center of a thriving slave trade, come to be a place where barriers were broken, making the Festival a catalyst in the emerging Civil Rights Movement?

Jazz and Civil Rights

“Jazz,” wrote critic Stanley Crouch, “predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art in America.”

From its inception, Jazz music was connected to the African American struggle for freedom.

Newport Jazz favorite Louis Armstrong once sang:

“My Only Sin, is in my skin

What did I do, to be so Black and Blue.”

Louis Armstrong

In the 1930’s, clarinetist Benny Goodman was the first major white bandleader to integrate his band, refusing to play in segregated areas of the country. Duke Ellington followed suit, refusing shows in front of segregated audiences.

Of course, Billie Holiday’s 1939 anti-lynching classic “Strange Fruit” brought the issue to the forefront. The lyrics (written by New York City school teacher Abel Meeropol), juxtapose lynched bodies hanging from a tree with the sweet scent of magnolias:

“Southern trees bear strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood on the root,

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Songs like these influenced the Civil Rights Movement that began in 1954 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat that December evening in Montgomery, Alabama. Earlier that year, the first annual Newport Jazz Festival was held.

Newport Jazz and Civil Rights

In the 1950’s, racism in New England was less overt than in the South, but it surely was a way of life in the City by the Sea, once a major slave-trading port. In fact, America’s first resort did not welcome African Americans, and hotel arrangements were difficult due to unwritten (but widely practiced) segregationist policies.

At the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, black and white concertgoers mingled together on stage, in the crowd, and around town – but not in most hotels, guest houses and restaurants. As a result, there was discussion of moving the Festival to “less insular environs” like Providence or New York City.

“Newport was a southern city in a sense, because of the naval base. At least half of the officers were from the South. They really believed in segregation, white supremacy, they grew up that way,” noted Festival founder George Wein in a 2015 interview.

George Wein (Photo: Ken Abrams)

“In the first year of the Festival, there was a reluctance to rent hotel rooms to African Americans. We had to put some of the people appearing in private homes. By the second year, that had changed. Several years later, Newport elected an African American as Mayor of the city. I think we had an effect on that,” explained Wein. (In 1981, Paul Gaines became the first African American elected Mayor in any city in Rhode Island.)

The Festival nurtured a consciousness that would influence the Civil Rights movement. Wein himself, married to an African American woman, exemplifed social justice in his personal and professional life.

In his award-winning biography Myself Among Others, Wein wrote “integration and civil rights were my way of life. I hadn’t participated in street demonstrations or lunch counter protests; I had been at the forefront of the fight in a more personal, less confrontational sense.”

“In my personal case, I grew up with a lot of anti-Semitism in my face, in my school. I was married to Joyce, an African American woman for over 46 years; my family was afraid at the very beginning that it would ruin my life, but for me, it was just the opposite, it made my life. People felt that we represented some sort of an ideal, which in my mind we did.”

Wein’s goal was to put on great concerts, not necessarily to directly advance the cause of civil rights, but in the process, he and the Festival did just that. In New Orleans, where he produced the renowned Jazz and Heritage Festival for many years, racist practices were far more widespread.

“I was invited down there in 1962, I couldn’t even bring my wife, because they had Jim Crow laws and intermarriage was illegal. And now of course, they’ve named a building after me, the George and Joyce Wein Jazz and Heritage Center.”

Folk and Civil Rights

There was a more direct connection to the Civil Rights Movement at the Newport Folk Festival in the 1960’s. By the time the Folk Festival was started (1959), many folk artists were becoming involved in the Movement.

Wein spoke to this point in our interview:

“I think the Folk Festival, where we were bringing groups like CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) to town, was part of the great Movement. When we would sing “We Shall Overcome” as the finale, you had 20,000 people out there joining in.”

“Next thing you know, President Lyndon Johnson was saying ‘We Shall Overcome’ in a speech.” (Johnson used the phrase in a 1965 speech in support of the Voting Rights Act.)

Wein, who was honored by Jimmy Carter in 1978 and Bill Clinton in 1993, is humbled to know the unofficial anthem of the Folk Festival became so prominent in American culture. Although it may seem insignificant today, a President quoting a folk song was pretty remarkable at the time.

“The Folk Festival activism was extremely important to me. The Festival was a platform and forum. My role as Festival organizer was just another part of the continuing struggle,” explained Wein.

Ultimately, the two Festivals served as a model for racial harmony. They continue to do so today, celebrating great music, while not ignoring the social issues that remain at the forefront of American life.

Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music and more for What'sUpNewp, Providence Monthly, SO RI, and The Bay. He DJ's "The Kingston Coffeehouse" Tuesday nights, 6-9 PM on WRIU 90.3 FM.