Bob Jones, Behind-the-Stage Force at Newport Festivals, Dies at 86


Bob Jones, who began as a volunteer at the Newport Folk Festival in the early 1960s before rapidly gaining the trust of its impresario, George Wein, and going on to produce the event over two decades, died on Aug. 14 in hospice care in Danbury, Conn. He was 86.

His daughter Radhika Jones said the cause was complications of dementia.

Mr. Jones spent a half-century with the folk festival, held every summer in Rhode Island, as well as with its companion, the Newport Jazz Festival, and other events produced by Mr. Wein. He was there when Bob Dylan outraged purists by going electric at the 1965 folk festival, and he helped persuade Mr. Wein to resurrect the festival in 1985 after a 16-year hiatus.

In his autobiography, “Myself Among Others: A Life in Music” (with Nate Chinen, 2003), Mr. Wein, who started the jazz festival in 1954 and the folk version in 1959, called Mr. Jones “an indispensable member of the hierarchy of Festival Productions,” his company.

Like many of the people who worked for Mr. Wein, who died in 2021, Mr. Jones performed a variety of tasks for the folk and jazz festivals. Early on, he was in charge of arranging housing for performers and getting them to the stage on time.

“Our closest call this year was Miles Davis,” he told The Newport Daily News in 1966. “He arrived at the field less than 10 minutes before he was to appear onstage.”

For two years in the 1960s, Mr. Jones traveled around the South and Canada in search of new talent for the folk festival with the folklorist and mandolin player Ralph Rinzler.

“They found these people who weren’t in the music business, who were playing on back porches and at house parties,” said Rick Massimo, author of “I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival” (2017). “What still reverberates today is how they helped rediscover Cajun music, which wasn’t well known or appreciated outside Louisiana.”

Mr. Jones and Mr. Rinzler’s roadwork led to an infusion of artists at the 1964 folk festival, including the singer and songwriter Jimmy Driftwood, the banjo player Frank Proffitt, the balladeer Almeda Riddle, the bottleneck guitarist and blues singer Mississippi Fred McDowell and the fiddler and singer Glen Ohrlin.

Mr. Jones was also the road manager for international tours, arranged by Mr. Wein, that featured Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington in the 1960s and ’70s and Sarah Vaughan in the ‘80s.

“Bob was an intelligent and low-key person who was unfazed by chaos and worked really well with artists,” Mr. Chinen, the editorial director of the public radio station WRTI in Philadelphia, said in a phone interview. “So you can imagine he was the right type of person to take Monk around the world.”

Robert Leslie Jones was born on May 11, 1937, in Boston. His father, Edward, was an electrician, and his mother, Florence (Foss) Jones, was a homemaker.

He entered Boston University’s junior college in 1956 and received his associate arts degree two years later, around the time he moved with his sister Helen into an apartment above Cafe Yana, one of the coffeehouses at the heart of the Boston-Cambridge area’s folk music scene.

He was intrigued by the music, and, having some talent, began performing, favoring Woody Guthrie songs like “Do Re Mi.” He also took on the background role of organizing hootenannies, and found he enjoyed it.

He withdrew from Boston University’s bachelor’s degree program in 1960 and was soon drafted into the Army; a conscientious objector, he served stateside as an Army medic. After his discharge, he continued to play music in the Boston area.

In 1964, he was featured, along with Phil Ochs, Lisa Kindred and Eric Andersen, on an album, “New Folks, Vol. 2,” released on the Vanguard label.

Once he joined Mr. Wein’s staff in about 1965, Mr. Jones became involved in nearly everything in the Wein empire, including the Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice, France, and the Kool Jazz Festivals — stadium shows around the country that he ran from 1976 to 1985 as technical producer from a base in Cincinnati.

In 1985, Mr. Jones became the top producer of the Newport Folk Festival, which had been dormant since 1969, following the gate-crashing that had disrupted that year’s jazz festival, when rock acts like Led Zeppelin and Sly and the Family Stone joined the bill. The jazz festival moved to New York City in 1972, where it continued under various names for three decades. (Mr. Wein brought jazz back to Newport in 1981, but the folk festival did not revive as quickly.)

In his book, Mr. Wein credited Mr. Jones — with part-time help from his daughters, Radhika and Nalini — with helping to restore the folk festival to life. Asked what she and her sister, both teenagers at the time, had done, Radhika Jones, the editor in chief of Vanity Fair, said, “My guess is that George saw that a younger generation was enthused by it, which gave him a sense that this was something that would draw an audience.”

The festival lineup that year included Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, Judy Collins, Dave Van Ronk, Doc and Merle Watson, Arlo Guthrie, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. A year later, the festival became a platform for a future star: the bluegrass singer and fiddler Alison Krauss, who was 15.

Mr. Jones was long immersed in the jazz festival, as a producer and production manager, with Mr. Wein retaining the title of lead producer. He was also involved in the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, known as Jazz Fest, which Mr. Wein also produced.

“Bob was like a test pilot of jazz, always smooth and calm,” Quint Davis, the current producer and director of Jazz Fest, said. “His brain was like a Univac. He had all the knowledge to make a show work.”

Mr. Jones’s active involvement in production ended in early 2004 with a diagnosis of Guillain-Barre syndrome, which left him mostly paralyzed and breathing through a ventilator. He recovered enough to stay on as an adviser and mentor through 2009; his daughter Nalini, who had been his assistant, became an associate producer and helped run the folk festival from 2004 to 2009.

When Mr. Jones was able to return to the Newport site in August 2004, he was carried onto the stage by a forklift.

“He loved logistics,” Nalini Jones said, “and he looked delighted.”

In addition to his daughters, he is survived by his wife, Marguerite (Suares) Jones; his son, Christopher; three grandchildren; and his sisters, Helen von Schmidt and Marcia McCarthy.

In 1984, Mr. Jones sang at Symphony Hall in Boston at a reunion concert of performers who had worked at the storied folk music venue Club 47. Billed as Robert L. Jones, he was on a program with Richie Havens, Tom Rush and others.

“We were stunned,” Radhika Jones said. “I was 12 at the time, but we really didn’t realize he’d been a performer. He’d sung to us, and we listened to folk music at home.

“It was really special to see him onstage. This was a part of him we started to discover.”

POST AUTHOR: Richard Sandomir

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