Ken Peplowski is shown playing at the Newport Beach Jazz Party earlier this year. (July 1, 2010)

Organizers of a new jazz series are looking "straight-ahead" to a successful summer.

The Summer Jazz at Newport series opens Wednesday at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa and will continue each week throughout the summer with accessible, classic jazz standards by top-tier performers.

The event replaces the popular West Coast Jazz Party, which ran for 15 years during Labor Day Weekend in Irvine.

"We've kind of expanded to eight weeks from what was once a one-weekend event," event co-producer John McClure said.

McClure said Newport Beach is starting to become as much a hotspot for live jazz as Newport, R.I., was in its heyday. The famed Newport Jazz Festival has hosted such luminaries as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington.

Newport Beach offers events to appeal to fans of all aspects of the wide-reaching (and often difficult-to-delineate) jazz genre. McClure said his new festival will be a complement to another famous Newport Beach summer event.

Bridging a chasm

Less than a mile away from the Marriott, as the crow flies, the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach is renowned for its smooth jazz festival. Artists like Earl Klugh, Spyro Gyra and Kenny G (although the latter's linkage to smooth jazz is fiercely debated) made the genre famous, as did many years of exposure on the Weather Channel, which used smooth jazz as background music during its local weather forecasts.

In contrast, the new Sunset Jazz at Newport festival exclusively will feature "straight-ahead" jazz, which latter festival co-creator and Corona del Mar resident Joe Rothman described as "the Great American Songbook with a beat."

"You'll know almost every song they play," Rothman said. "I defy you to hum any melodies from the smooth jazz genre."

The divide between the mainstream and newer fusion jazz styles is long lasting, but has grown more amicable with time; Duke Ellington attempted to allay the debate as to what can really be considered jazz by asserting: "It's all music."

"The common thread running through all the straight-ahead acts is that they play songs that most people know," McClure said.

From there, the performers can springboard into the world of improvisation.

"If you want to hear smooth jazz, this isn't the series for you," laughed drummer Jeff Hamilton, who's kicking off the series Wednesday with his eponymous trio.

Now in its ninth year, the trio has several CDs under its belt. The drummer also is well-known for his performances with pianist and vocalist Diana Krall.

"Jeff Hamilton is arguably the world's greatest drummer," Rothman said. "His trio is arguably the finest jazz trio. After you've heard Jeff perform, a lot of other drummers don't sound good to you."

"I have concentrated on this trio this year, so we're excited to be selected to start off this series," Hamilton said. "John and Joe have always put on first-class music in the jazz idiom, and they have a clientele that will support them. They like to say that their music is straight-ahead and swinging."

Each Wednesday-evening experience will include two one-hour sets for the cost of one ticket. Light dinners and appetizers will be available for sale, and a bar will serve beverages.

The sets will be performed in an intimate venue — the property's Rose Garden, with a view of the sunset, the ocean and Catalina Island on a clear night.

"I think the outdoor venue and the location are big draws," Hamilton said.