This Day In Rhode Island History, 50 Years Ago

Riot At The Newport Jazz Festival, July 2, 1960 By MARC MYERS - Blame it on "Jazz on a Summer's Day," "A Summer Place"...

Riot At The Newport Jazz Festival, July 2, 1960 By MARC MYERS -

Blame it on "Jazz on a Summer's Day," "A Summer Place" and "Gidget." All three films stirred the imaginations of New England's youth in early 1960, motivating thousands to head to Newport, R.I., for the Fourth of July weekend.

But what began as a chance to swim, find romance and listen to live jazz quickly turned ugly on the evening of Saturday, July 2. Unable to disperse an intoxicated mob of up to 12,000 young people seeking access to the sold-out Newport Jazz Festival, New England's wealthiest community summoned the state police and then the National Guard to restore order.

When the tear gas cleared, stricter rules for crowd control and alcohol consumption were enforced at outdoor jazz, rock, pop and soul concerts nationwide. And the Newport Jazz Festival was left with a black eye.

Lessons learned 50 years ago still linger. "We didn't know anything about handling crowds back then’nor did Newport," says George Wein, 84, who founded the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and is producing this year's event’now known as the CareFusion Jazz Festival’Aug. 6 to 8. "Two of our three concerts now will be held during the day, and the festival pays for extra police traffic details."

But why were thousands of teenagers and college-age students drawn specifically to Newport 50 years ago rather than to Cape Cod or other more accessible New England beaches? Mr. Wein says he remains baffled by the surge, adding that he didn't promote the jazz festival any differently in 1960 than he had in previous years.

The answer likely rests with that trio of movies. Filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, "Jazz on a Summer's Day" was released in late March 1960. The color documentary glamorized jazz and its hip audience, inadvertently creating the impression that seating was limitless and free.

Also at movie houses that spring was "A Summer Place," starring Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee as teenage lovers rebelling against hypocritical parents. Percy Faith's yearning instrumental, "Theme From a Summer Place," was No. 1 on Billboard's pop-singles chart for a staggering nine weeks.

And then there was "Gidget." Released a year earlier, the film starred Sandra Dee and was the first in a series of popular teens-know-best beach films. While the Beach Boys' first hit song was still nearly two years off, "Gidget" instantly established the beach as a teenage proving ground.

On Thursday, June 30, 1960, jazz festival ticketholders began arriving in Newport by ferry and car. "By Friday, July 1st, we could tell there were more people pouring into town than would fit in the 16,500 seats at Freebody Park, where the festival was held then," recalls Charlie Oxx, a former Newport patrolman.

On the morning of Saturday, July 2, Newport's streets were clogged with thousands of cranky teenagers and college students. Many hadn't been able to find a room and had spent Friday night on the beach in the pouring rain.

"Midday, we inched along in our patrol car and eventually had to abandon it," says William "Cub" Costello, a retired Newport police officer. "The beer stores in town were selling to buyers all day long, which obviously was a mistake."

By 3 p.m., thousands of additional young people who had been tanning and drinking at the beach headed up into town. "The Navy was based in Newport, so we were used to handling disorderly sailors," recalls Robert Murphy, a retired patrolman. "But these kids were like ants’the volume was frightening."

At 4:30 p.m., a melee broke out in town between two rival college fraternities, and the state police were called to double the size of the roughly 100-man Newport force. By 7:30 p.m., an hour before the Newport Jazz Festival's start, fistfights erupted and crowds swelled outside the brick walls surrounding the concert grounds.

"I was stationed at the southeast entrance to Freebody Park where the riot started," says Jack Taylor, a retired patrolman. "When the kids began tearing down the big wooden gate to get into the concert, I moved a refrigeration truck to block the gap and keep them out."

Even jazz musicians ran into trouble. "Walking to the concert at 8 p.m., we saw broken windows and bottles, and kids running," says vibraphonist Gary Burton. "We were trapped between the police and the drunks."

As Ray Charles, Horace Silver and others performed inside the park, the 200 police officers tried to push the crowd back up the street, away from the festival entrance. "We locked arms and moved forward, but we didn't have helmets then, and the kids began throwing beer cans and bottles," says Mr. Murphy. "Some of the officers were hit in the head."

Few inside the walled concert grounds knew the full scope of the turmoil brewing outside’except Mr. Wein. "The police asked me to keep the concert going, to prevent our audience from being released into the mob outside," he says.

Fire-truck hoses were used on the frantic crowd, but without much success. Finally, nightsticks and tear-gas grenades were unleashed, forcing the young people back. By 11 p.m., the state and local police managed to split the mob into two running groups.

But Newport was still undermanned and at risk. At midnight, the town council called the governor, who summoned the Rhode Island National Guard. Most of the rioters were herded down to the beach, where they were contained overnight.

Early Sunday morning, nonresidents were bused out of town, including many of the 170 people arrested the night before. A few hours later, Newport's town council voted 4 to 3 to cancel the rest of the jazz festival, but allowed for a planned blues concert. Mr. Burton managed to record "After the Riot" at Newport on Monday, July 4, for RCA outside a nearby mansion.

As for Mr. Wein, he returned to New York broke and without a festival to plan for the following year. "Somehow the problems of that night were put on me," he says. "My wife, Joyce, had to take a job at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital to pay our bills for the next two years, allowing me to rebuild."

None of the retired police officers interviewed for this article said they hold a grudge against jazz or Mr. Wein. "We loved seeing Louis Armstrong and all the other stars," says Mr. Oxx. "That night we were protecting the audience from the drunken kids who came to Newport for a spring-break party."

Mr. Wein was gratified to hear that. "I've been saying for years that the 1960 riot had nothing to do with me or the jazz festival and its audiences," he says. "We all learned things that weekend. It was an age of innocence."

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