Robert L. Jones was the longtime director of the Newport Folk and Newport Jazz festivals and a founding producer of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival. His career as a champion and promoter of American music spanned five decades and countless genres: folk, jazz, bluegrass, blues, gospel, soul, R&B, and zydeco, to name a few. In the 1960s and early ’70s he served as road manager to Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. At a time when jazz musicians were ambassadors for American culture and democracy, he took Ellington and his orchestra around the world, including visits to South America and Australia; Laos and Burma; and Ethiopia, where they performed for Haile Selassie. He scouted venues in Moscow, escorted the band to Prague on their first trip behind the Iron Curtain, and oversaw Ellington’s sacred concerts at Westminster Abbey in London, Saint-Sulpice in Paris, and Santa Maria del Mar Basilica in Barcelona. His time in Europe with Monk is chronicled in the critically acclaimed documentary Straight, No Chaser, and newly unearthed footage from that period appears in the recent film Rewind and Play. Jones also toured internationally with Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, and Sarah Vaughan, among other jazz greats.
Jones started as a performer. A Boston native and early supporter of the folk clubs in Cambridge, MA (the Golden Vanity, Club 47), he sang Woody Guthrie songs like “Do Re Mi” and “The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti” between dishwashing stints and ran club hootenannies, hosting the likes of Joan Baez, Geoff Muldaur, Bob Neuwirth, Jackie Washington, and Jim Rooney. He introduced a young Bob Dylan to folk-blues singer Eric von Schmidt, who then taught Dylan the song “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” featured on Dylan’s debut album.
In the early ’60s Jones was recruited to travel with folklorist Ralph Rinzler in search of traditional musicians to bring to the Newport Folk Festival. The pair spent two years on extensive trips through the American South and the Canadian Maritime Provinces, introducing Newport audiences to an incredible array of artists, from the traditional balladeers of Newfoundland to shape-note singers from the Georgia Sea Islands to Texas chain-gang blues. Jones’s work sparked a lifelong collaboration with festival impresario George Wein. Through his career at Wein’s company, Festival Productions, Jones became a driving force of the Newport Jazz Festival–New York, with signature concerts at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, and an upstate festival in Saratoga Springs. He was a road manager for Wein’s international jazz tours, and helped establish the Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice. From the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, he produced Wein’s Kool Jazz Festivals, touring the country with R&B stadium shows featuring the likes of Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, the O’Jays, and Ray Charles.
At the Newport Folk Festival, which he revived in 1985 with Wein’s support, Jones delighted in featuring rising stars alongside icons, and singer-songwriters alongside the traditional blues, bluegrass, gospel, and Cajun artists he so admired. He booked a teenaged Alison Krauss for her first major festival appearance, and brought Bob Dylan back to Newport in 2002 for the first time since his iconic set in 1965. In a nod to the original Newport workshops, he developed song circles to highlight solo performers and new voices including Shawn Colvin, Sarah MacLachlan, and Rosie Flores. Newport became a major crossroads for American music, where country, folk, and acoustic pop artists could explore their musical roots, and artists like Wilco, Indigo Girls, and Tom Morello appeared on programs with Doc Watson, Joan Baez, and Odetta. It was a catalyst for tours like Lilith Fair and a model for the contemporary festival landscape. A 2014 documentary, The Newport Effect, explores the festival’s impact on music, culture, and social activism.
For decades, Jones was a beloved figure at festivals worldwide, from Norway to Japan. He produced concerts on racetracks and riverboats, in cathedrals and forts, in tiny clubs and at the White House. Music shaped his personal life: while on the road with Cannonball Adderley, he met his future wife, Marguerite Suares, at an Air India office in Paris. After marrying in Paris they settled in Newport, where their first child was born the day after riots shut down that summer’s jazz festival. They lived in New York, in Cincinnati during the heyday of the Midwest soul tours, and then in Connecticut.
In 2004 Jones contracted an auto-immune syndrome, Guillain-Barré, which severely compromised his mobility. For as long as possible, he attended the festivals he had helped to build, including a visit to New Orleans in 2019 to celebrate Jazzfest’s 50th anniversary, and continued to mentor a new generation of producers. He is survived by his wife, Marguerite, with whom he celebrated his 53rd wedding anniversary in August; his children Nalini Jones (Drew Patrick), Radhika Jones (Max Petersen), and Christopher Jones (Kim Stevens); his three grandchildren, Phoebe and Thalia Patrick, and Finlay Petersen; his sisters Helen von Schmidt and Marcia McCarthy; and ten nieces and nephews.
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