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A Millennial Incursion At Newport

Trombone Shorty, with Dan Oestreicher on baritone saxophone in the background, performing at the Newport Jazz Festival on Saturday.
Erik Jacobs for NPR
Trombone Shorty, with Dan Oestreicher on baritone saxophone in the background, performing at the Newport Jazz Festival on Saturday.

The New Black Eagle Jazz Band is about as traditional as they come. The musicians have been playing together for 40 years. And they opened this year's Newport Jazz Festival with rousing, old-time New Orleans polyphony, a style that dates back to the teens and 1920s.

At the same moment, a mere 300 feet away on another stage at Fort Adams, is a band of twenty- and thirty-somethings on the opposite end of the musical spectrum. It's called Mostly Other People Do the Killing.

The quartet takes its musical cues from pop, rock, experimental music and punk, although their dark suits and sunglasses suggest ironic New Wave. Their wild, brash humor makes you think they might be thumbing their noses at traditional jazz.

"No, not even a little bit," says bassist Moppa Elliott, who leads the band.

Elliott's jazz-loving parents — who came to see their son on Saturday — brought him to the Newport Jazz Festival starting when he was too young to even remember. He and trumpeter Peter Evans even figured out that they'd both heard Miles Davis perform at the same Newport fest back when they were both in elementary school.

Elliott was a child of the eighties. But he was brought up on a different soundtrack: classic jazz albums of the 1950s on record labels like Blue Note, Prestige, and Impulse. "I grew up surrounded by this kind of music and it's the core of what I hear in my head — when I hear things that aren't voices," he says.

You might be tempted to label music like Elliott's "crossover." The term was invented by marketing executives in the early 1990, who equated self-conscious genre-bending with chart-crossing hits — if they were lucky.

Today, musicians seem more interested in transforming traditional styles to reach audiences of their peers. Newport's artistic co-director Jason Olaine says that's what he's seen.

"Musicians, their nature is to create and interpret music as they see it — in a personal way," Olaine says. "Growing up in the world of backbeat is probably going to have some influence versus growing up in the world of swinging jazz from the 1950s or '60s."

There are no headliners at Newport this year, no interloping pop or R&B artists. There were, however, huge crowds for Esperanza Spalding, the bassist and singer who won this year's Grammy for Best New Artist. She tours with veteran saxophonist Joe Lovano — and with veteran rocker Prince.

The 57th Newport Jazz Festival concludes tonight with a performance by Trombone Shorty. The 25-year-old New Orleans native, whose given name is Troy Andrews, is like about a third of the bandleaders featured at this year's festival: around 30 or younger. Shorty, another musician who brings different contemporary influences to jazz, actually got audiences up off their feet and dancing in their clamdiggers on Saturday afternoon.

There may be some naysayers, but the New Black Eagle Jazz Band's clarinetist Billy Novick has nothing but praise for the younger generation.

"Love it," he says. "Some of the people who play this music [traditional jazz] are stodgy about it and very judgmental about it. We're not that way."

And neither, it would seem, are most of the people in the lawn chairs at Newport.

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Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Timesand the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.
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