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The inclusion of Elaine and her husband, Louis Lorillard, into Rhode Island’s Hall of Fame has been overdue. Meeting in Naples, Italy during World War II, this couple began a most creative partnership, and one that greatly affected the arts in America. Louis was descended from the owners of the Lorillard Tobacco Company, a firm founded in 1760. The family came to summer in Newport in the late 19th century.
In the early 1950s, Newport socialite, Elaine Lorillard, conceived the idea of bringing jazz music from the small, smoky, overcrowded nightclubs to an open-air environment whereby hundreds of people could enjoy the cream of American music in one place. Elaine and Louis founded the Newport Jazz Festival by filing a 1953 charter of incorporation with the state. In 1954, when they hired Boston piano player, George Wein, they presented the first summer concert of the Newport Jazz Festival at the Newport Casino. Newporters enjoyed the sounds of Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and Gene Krupa. Elaine highlighted her friend, Billie Holiday. Ms. Lorillard originally expected a few hundred patrons at Newport’s Casino, but over 7,000 fans showed-up. Since then, the Newport Jazz Festival has made superstars out of performers such as Sarah Vaughn, Dave Brubeck, Theolonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane.
The Lorillard couple, who resided at Quetrel on Bellevue Avenue, had the name, reputation, and background to make their dream a reality and the money to fund it. Since the successful 1954 festival, the project has continued until today on a grander scale.
Elaine and Louis Lorillard alone created the non-profit Newport Jazz Festival in 1953 as the original festival charter signatories. Elaine conceptualized its first venue and Louis served as producer. Together they, and friends, funded musicians and staff for the innovative event from 1954 until 1960. Then stepped away knowing that they took jazz out of the clubs and entertained a wider audience, further integrating jazz into the American fabric. The Lorillards put Newport on the music map.
It is noteworthy that many great African-American artists were given an annual forum upon which to display their superb musical talents to integrated audiences during the beginnings of the Civil Rights Era. This exposure to a purely American music, called jazz, helped to create cultural bridges among all Americans.
In the late 1950s, the Lorillards also supported the beginnings of the highly-successful Newport Folk Festival. Some of the first performers were Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and the Kingston Trio.
In the 1960s, the philanthropic Louis Lorillard rejuvenated the historic Artillery Company of Newport, the oldest US military unit operating under its original charter. This historic group had been dormant for decades, but it now participates in many patriotic events, especially at Newport’s July 4th celebrations.
Both of these music pioneers passed away in Rhode Island, Louis in 1986 and Elaine in 2007. They were survived by their daughter Edith “Didi” (Lorillard) Cowley, a Newport resident, and a son, Pierre Livingston Lorillard.