Roger Lewis has hauled his baritone saxophone to gigs in far-flung places, from England to Japan to New Guinea. He's played so many places he's lost count of precisely where he's been. But he's never forgotten Newport.
Lewis, a member of New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band, returns to Rhode Island's city-by-the-sea again this weekend for the Newport Jazz Festival, an event he calls "one of the greatest festivals in the world."
"I remember listening to that Ray Charles album from when he played Newport," Lewis told The Associated Press by phone from his home in New Orleans, where he had been practicing some numbers he expects to play in Newport. "We've played all around the world but to have the opportunity to play Newport has been a dream."
The festival begins Friday with performances by Natalie Cole, her uncle Freddy Cole and the Bill Charlap Trio at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. It continues Saturday and Sunday on three stages at the festival's longtime home at Fort Adams State Park overlooking the sailboats and blue waters of Narragansett Bay. Several thousand ticketholders are expected each day.
Many of the dozens of performers booked for the event have personal connections to its creator, jazz impresario George Wein, who organized the first jazz festival in 1954 at the behest of a local Newport socialite. Wein discovered the Dirty Dozen Brass Band playing a concert at a local school in New Orleans' French Quarter. At 87, Wein continues to attract the biggest names in jazz while scouting clubs for the hottest up-and-comers.
Although the 2013 lineup features stars like Cole, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, Wein said he's particularly proud of how many lesser-known, younger artists are scheduled to play.
"Jazz is not a history book. It's not a museum," he said. "We have a mission to present relatively unknown artists who we think have a chance to be the starts of the future. These are young musicians playing their hearts out."
And a few older ones, too. Pianist and singer Freddy Cole — brother to Nat King Cole — said he's looking forward to sharing a lineup with his niece, who is coming off a hit album and a European tour. He's also eager to catch up with old friends.
"Anytime you get this many crazy musicians together, I wouldn't miss it," he said. "It's like a reunion. It's a chance to see all these guys who I don't get to see because they're out touring, just like me."
Two years ago, Wein created a nonprofit foundation to oversee the festival — and its sister event, the Newport Folk Festival — in an attempt to ensure their long-term survival. Nonprofit status allows for tax-deductible contributions from fans and corporate sponsors. The jazz festival is also sponsored by the investment firm Natixis Global Asset Management.
Several other music festivals are already nonprofit, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which Wein also created.
Although the status of jazz has waxed and waned in the nation that gave it life, it remains hugely popular in many other nations, and many of the performers playing Newport are at least as popular in Europe or Japan as they are in their homeland. Lewis, of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, said he believes music in general and jazz in particular have a universal appeal. He recalled one concert when the band played for dignitaries in an Asian country.
"Somebody told us, 'Don't expect these people to get up and dance. They just don't do that kind of thing,'" he said. "Well, we started playing, and I saw those feet start tapping. The response is always the same. One of the great things a musician can do is make people happy. If you make somebody happy, you can change somebody's life."
Newport Jazz Festival, http://newportjazzfest.net