Photos by Nicole Vanasse
Bellevue Avenue in Newport is home to some of the grandest mansions in the world, homes that the wealthy owners referred to as their “summer cottages.” It is also home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which is a lovely, peaceful … alright, maybe a little bit stuffy venue for racquet sports, and the occasional concert.
When the folks at the Newport Jazz Festival announced that their opening night show would take place at the Hall of Fame this year, and that it would feature Dr. John, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, you could almost hear worlds collide.
Any evening that begins with Festival founder George Wein playing the piano is off to a good start. I would have been happy to listen to him play all night, but it was soon time for him to introduce the first act of the night. It’s easy to see why Wein is so beloved. He is one of the most charismatic people you can ever have the pleasure of encountering.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been around for 50 years and is led these days by tuba player Ben Jaffe, whose parents founded Preservation Hall in the early ’60s. This year they accomplished the perhaps unprecedented double of playing at the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival in the same year. The fact that they were well received by both audiences speaks volumes about their widespread appeal.
The always dependable band from New Orleans played their usual impeccable mix of styles that when blended together make up the sound of New Orleans music. Standout performances included “Trombone Freddie,” with the outstanding trombonist Freddie Lonzo taking the spotlight, the Latin-flavored “La Malanga, which featured Tao Seeger, the heartfelt spiritual “I’ll Fly Away,” and of course the rousing finale “Oh When the Saints.” Vocalist Catherine Russell joined the group for a couple of numbers, and was particularly effective on “A Good Man.”
A young New Orleans pianist named Jonathan Batiste played a couple of songs during the break between the acts. He has some very impressive skills, and we’ll no doubt be hearing a lot more from him in the coming years. Of particular interest was his astonishing rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Soon it was time from Dr. John to saunter onto the stage to the strains of his first-rate band, the Lower 911. On this tour the band includes the wonderful New Orleans keyboard player Jon Clearly who is along strictly as a sideman. The good doctor explored a wide swath of his career, going way back to the Night Tripper days for “Walk On Guilded Splinters,” and also playing “Revolution” and the title track from this year’s fine Locked Down album.
The Doctor’s set also included chestnuts like “Makin’ Whoopee,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” and “Big Chief,” and more contemporary fare like “Soulful Warrior,” “Rain,” and “Save the Bones For Henry Jones.” There is no way Doctor John could leave the stage without playing his biggest hit “Right Time Wrong Place,” and he and the band did it up right.
So New Orleans came to Newport, if only for one night. To be honest, getting the rather subdued audience on their feet proved something of a challenge. Perhaps it was the surroundings, or maybe they just had a hole in their soul. Eventually they started to move though, and by the time the last notes faded into the midsummer night, they were calling for more.