Island percussionist named first director of Newport BridgeFest
In 2009, Lois Vaughan saw a letter to the editor in the Newport Daily News. The local musician had been trying to showcase the local music scene for some time, and the letter suggested an event that would bridge the week between the Newport Folk and Jazz festivals each summer.
Vaughan took the idea to the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Newport County, and 2014 will mark the sixth anniversary of the Newport BridgeFest.
This year, however, will have a deeper local connection than ever: Jamestown musician Aaron Cote has been named the festival’s first ever director.
Cote was in Hawaii when he received the email offering him the job. After thinking about it for a few moments, he decided he was perfect for the gig.
“This is local music in your backyard,” he said, “so I felt like I should be there.”
Vaughan is happy Cote accepted. “Whatever he does, he’s really good at it,” she said. “I just think it’s wonderful.”
The first BridgeFest in 2009 was pulled together in a month, according to Vaughan. It’s exploded since.
“Every year it has grown,” she said. “It’s a way of celebrating local, live music.”
Vaughan said she met Cote several years ago and began hiring him to play with her at gigs. Cote was also invited to become a member of the Arts & Cultural Alliance board of directors, and last year he helped to organize performances at BridgeFest. As the festival grew, it became clear there was too much work involved for the all-volunteer effort. A director was sought.
Cote, who describes himself as a percussionist, artist, performer and educator, was invited three years ago to give a musical performance at BridgeFest. He got the semiofficial title of music coordinator two years ago, where his job was to cull through all the musical submissions from people who wanted to play. He also had to find performance locations for those chosen.
Cote kept rising up the ranks. He was given his own stage to coordinate in 2013. He produced a program called “Busking at Bowen’s.” It featured 20 musicians playing over a four-day period at Bowen’s Wharf. Cote has also continued to perform at the festival, and has done at least one educational event each year.
Cote’s overall mandate is to ensure the festival runs smoothly. Toward that goal he has developed an idea for a more centralized festival. In the past, 20 to 50 events were offered each year all over Newport County. This year he hopes to create venues for specific genres of music, such as big band, folk, classical and jazz.
“We’re also looking at two educational venues, and then we have premier events on top of that,” Cote said. “We’ll still incorporate events across the county.”
Cote proposed the idea of the centralized stages to the Arts & Cultural Alliance, and it was approved. (Cote has stepped down from the board to take on his new role.
For example, if someone shows up at Queen Anne Square at 6 p.m. during the festival, no matter the day, there will be a concert.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “We’re trying to make it easier for the audience to digest.”
According to Cote, the planning of this year’s festival has started earlier than in the past to make organization easier. He is quick to point out that although he is the overall director, authority has been delegated to others in some areas.
“Everything goes through me, but a lot of it is letting people do what they do,” Cote said. “It’s too much for one person to organize the whole festival, but I want to make sure everybody has someone to come to when they need new ideas, or when something goes wrong.”
Another idea that Cote has brought to the table is fundraising for a scholarship that will help a high-school senior seek a music degree in college. He said Bridge- Fest is taking an active role in not just giving concerts to the community, but giving educational opportunities as well.
In addition to musical performances, BridgeFest has featured other related events. There is an annual appearance from George Wein, the founder of the Newport Folk and Jazz festivals. Each year he’s interviewed by Newport Daily News columnist Jim Gillis at one of the venues.
This year Cote hopes to get visual artists involved.
“It’s not set in stone, but we’re in the process of talking about a BridgeFest arts and fine crafts fair,” Cote said. “We want to give artists a chance to get to our music audiences.”
The sixth annual Newport BridgeFest will take place from July 28 to July 31, once again bridging the week between the folk and the jazz festivals. Cote expects the performance schedule will be announced around June 1. He encourages anyone interested in participating in any capacity to email him at music@newport bridgefest.com. “We’re looking for volunteers, we’re looking for venues, and we’re looking for sponsors,” he said.
Cote hopes his hometown will get involved.
“Being from Jamestown, I hope that happens,” he said. “We invite all of the communities of Newport County to get involved because this festival is about the community stepping up and telling us what they want.”
As the founder of BridgeFest, Vaughan looked to the future.
“My hope is the festival will continue to thrive and grow, and that as it thrives and grows, it will provide more opportunities for local and regional musicians to shine musically.”