The Newport Jazz Fest Riot of 1971

A little NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL HISTORY….after recently seeing the promo for this year’s (2021) NJF and remembering last year’s (2020) cancellation due to covid, I couldn’t help thinking of a different kind of NJF cancellation….

During the Summer season of 1971, after moving to and from several different locations since its inception in 1954, the festival had been successfully operating with huge crowds nightly at “Festival Field” in Newport for years…. On the evening of Saturday July 3, 1971, while touring with Dionne Warwick, I found myself sitting at the FOH sound desk mixing Dionne’s performance. Dionne had just segued into “Say A Little Prayer For You” when I heard some kind of a disturbance behind me. Turning, I saw smoke, fighting and just general mayhem. George Wein came on stage, stopped the show tried briefly to address the crowd, to no avail, and whisked Dionne and her players of the stage… Security declared the show was over and asked everybody to leave peacefully….it was not to be….as I looked around security was outnumbered and the crowd had grown more violent…I was standing (alone) at the sound board in the heart of a full blown riot ….completely shutting down the front of house sound console, I ran towards backstage only to see a tent next to my car on fire.

Jumping in to get it clear of the fire, I noticed the backstage “fire road” was still accessible though police and fire apparatus were streaming towards me and rioters were quickly beginning to block my exit. Knowing Dionne, the band and our background singers were safe in the bunker type dressing rooms below and around the stage, I floored that 1962 Buick 401 Wildcat, scaring the shit out of the rioters and
myself.

I returned to our hotel and waited until I got the call from our road manager that it was over …Dionne and our touring staff were all safe and we would be leaving in the morning… The next day the Newport town fathers revoked the festival’s license indefinitely….. It was the last performance of the Newport Jazz Festival to be held in Newport for the next 10 years making Dionne Warwick the last act to ever perform at Festival Field and yours truly the last sound engineer to run the sound console…. George Wein would move the festival to NYC for the next 10 years until it finally returned to its present location at Fort Adams State Park……and now you know……the rest of the story 🥴

(by Al Dotoli)

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