George Wein, who set the standard for what outdoor music gatherings would become with his leadership of the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals from the 1950s into the 21st century, died Monday at his home in New York City. He was 95.
Wein produced the first Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island in 1954 and founded its folk sister in 1959. In 1970, he co-founded the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Although he sold off the two Newport festivals, which are now being presented by a nonprofit, Wein remained involved with them up through this summer’s gatherings, although he was unable to attend the 2021 fests.
“Jazz music along with contemporary American music has lost one of its greatest champions,” tweeted Herbie Hancock. “George Wein brought his genuine love and passion for music to everything he did and deeply impacted the rich tapestry of popular American music for the better. We’re all greatly indebted.”
“We all owe George Wein a great debt,” tweeted Jason Isbell, who was one of the main performers at this summer’s Newport Folk Festival after sitting in with several different artists on the bill as a guest two years ago. “It was an honor to meet him and a joy to perform in his presence. Sad day.”
“Great art and music can change the world. George Wein was an American original,” said Rhode Island’s Sen. Jack Reed in a tweet. “He produced the soundtrack of freedom for a generation of Americans and gifted us @ @. His spirit & musical legacy live on!”
“Rhode Island lost a giant today,” said Rhode Island governor Dan McKee. “George Wein’s vision and passion brought people together through music in Newport for decades. His dedication to philanthropy changed countless lives forever. Through music, George’s legacy and spirit will live on for generations to come.
Wein received a Grammy Honorary Trustee Award in 2015, at which time the Grammys’ host, LL Cool J, said: “George Wein defined what a music festival could be … More than anyone, George set the stage for what great festivals today look like: festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo…”
Jazz music along with contemporary American music has lost one of its greatest champions. George Wein brought his genuine love and passion for music to everything he did and deeply impacted the rich tapestry of popular American music for the better. We’re all greatly indebted. pic.twitter.com/vxeRuWrjV9
— Herbie Hancock (@herbiehancock) September 14, 2021
In 2014, talking with Relix magazine, Wein said that he, too, believed his festivals laid the groundwork. “We were the first of the major outdoor music events,” he said.” Woodstock evolved right out of Newport with my staff, my sound people and my light people. The people who put on Woodstock had been to Newport and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we put the rock thing into the same feeling that Newport has?’ So Newport was ahead of its time because it represented the music of its day, which was jazz music. There was no rock when we started back in ‘54.”
Wein continued, “I received an award from the APAP [Association of Performing Arts Presenters] for being a pioneer in changing the way young Americans listen to music in the summer. I’m very proud of that award, but I didn’t realize I was doing that when I was doing that. We thought, ‘Why don’t we set up on the lawn and build a stage and play the music?’ Festivals go back to medieval times; there’s nothing original about doing a festival. (But) I guess this was the first time music was presented in a two-to-three-day period like that.”
Born October 3, 1925, Wein grew up playing classical piano by the time he was 8, but at age 14 switched to jazz because he wanted to sing and accompany himself, and because he was enthralled with an older brother’s record collection. In college, he began playing professionally with a Dixieland band that would perform at the Savoy Club in Boston. His organizational skills led him to become a producer and then club owner, opening the Storyville club in Boston in 1950.
He recorded with different large ensembles in the ensuing years, but also as a pianist leading smaller combos as well, as on “Wein, Women and Song,” a collection he and a group of players recorded in 1955 for Atlantic, and subsequent albums like “George Wein and the Newport All-Stars” and “Swing That Music.” He last performed as a pianist at a pre-festival gathering two summers ago.
In 1953, a professor from one of Boston’s local colleges brought a socialite, Elaine Lorillard, to his club who told him that she and her husband, Louis, had brought the New York Philharmonic to the city of Newport for a concert series but lost a huge amount of money due to lack of attendance. She suggested he could be helpful in trying to do something more successful in a jazz format the following summer. He looked to a nearby classical music festival in Tanglewood for inspiration.
“I knew what artists would sell tickets based on how they did at Storyville, and I knew going in what I wanted to do with the festival,” Wein told Jazzwax in a 2008 interview. “I saw it as an opportunity to promote jazz on a large scale and expose people of all ages to this great music. For the first time, people who didn’t go to clubs or couldn’t get in because they were too young now could see and hear the music and musicians live, outside, in a relaxed, laid-back setting. … The festival gave many musicians a huge popular platform they never had before. Even when jazz artists were popular on the radio and on records, and even with Jazz at the Philharmonic, it was still considered nighttime music. Newport changed all that. Newport brought jazz into the daylight, made it family music, and put it on par with classical music.”
Diversity was key, he said. “The most important thing about the first Newport Jazz Festival and probably one of my greatest contributions, was not sticking with one kind of jazz. I had Eddie Condon there and Lennie Tristano in between Billie Holiday and Lester Young on the same program. Whether it was traditional jazz with Bobby Hackett and Wild Bill Davison, or swing with Lester and Billie and Teddy Wilson, or bebop with Dizzy Gillespie, or modern jazz with Tristano and Lee Konitz — everyone’s taste was covered. And you could see whether jazz you had not heard before or didn’t care too much for appealed to you, too. We put musicians together who played very different types of jazz. This had never been done before.”
The diversity stretched so far that he put Led Zeppelin and other rock bands onto the Newport Jazz Festival in 1969, but he pulled back from that. “Look, I could have been the biggest rock producer in New England,” he told Jazzwax. But “after the festival, I said to myself, ‘This isn’t the life I want.’ … I had no control over the rock concerts. I couldn’t program them. I couldn’t use my own creative talents, whatever they were. … You put a group on, and they owned the festival. No one else could be playing someplace else. A rock group’s popularity was so great that the audience resisted any deviation. See, I liked to put on different groups on different stages at the same time. That was the beauty of the festival. Rock audiences were different. They were uni-dimensional and uni-directional. Young people didn’t want anything other than the main attraction. I didn’t want that. I wanted a range of groups that someone age 16 and 60 could go to see and enjoy.”
The documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, immortalized the fest for generations who never went anywhere near Rhode Island, and included Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Mahalia Jackson and even rocker Chuck Berry. It remained a sore point for Wein, though, as he was surprised to find his name was never mentioned in the film, even though he said he was responsible for every key decision at the festival.
Another documentary, 1967’s “Festival!,” was filmed at the Newport Folk Festival between 1963=65 and included artists including Dylan, Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Howlin’ Wolf, Donovan, the Staple Singers, Judy Collins and Mississippi John Hurt. Now available on home video as a Criterion Collection title, the film was nominated for a best documentary Oscar.
In 1965, a key moment in musical history occurred at the Newport Folk Festival, when Bob Dylan “went electric” for the first time. Fans there were largely accepting; it was only later, going over to London, that Dylan met with a cry of “Judas!” In Wein’s memoir, “Myself Among Others,” written with Nate Chinden and published in 2003, Wein recalled the occasion: “The young idealistic folk fans, who had valiantly resisted the mainstream tastes of their friends, no longer had to hold out. Rock and Roll was no longer taboo; if Dylan could cross that line, so could they.”
Many live albums have been recorded at the Newport festivals, including, in 1956, “Ellington at Newport,” by his good friend Duke Ellington, which became the bestselling album in the jazz great’s catalog.
Speaking with Relix in 2014, Wein said, “I get credit for things I didn’t do and I don’t get credit for things I did do. But look, I’m a very happy guy, because I’m 88 years old and I’m still doing what I’ve done for the past 60 or so years. How many people can say that?”
In 2007, Wein sold his company to a group that soon ran into financial trouble. Wein, then 81, reacquired the festival names two years later. In 2010, he established and was named chairman of the non-profit Newport Festivals Foundation.
Wein had also been a founding or active participant of other festivals over the years besides Newport’s and New Orleans’. In 1975, he co-founded the KOOL Jazz Festivals that combined jazz and soul acts on bills across the country. A sponsorship with JVC resulted in 25 years’ worth of festivals in New York City. In 1995, he co-launched the long-running Essence Festival, also in New York City.
In 2017, Wein told All About Jazz that, at 91, his hearing loss and mobility issues were affecting his ability to help program the festivals. He had turned over many of the reins to the jazz festival’s artistic director, Christian McBride, and to the executive producer for both festivals, Jay Sweet, although he was still actively involved. “I’m still doing it, but the drive is not the same,” he admitted. “The drive is literally just to stay alive and keep working with Christian to help him, to see that this festival continues. So I can’t say I’m as totally involved in music because I simply can’t hear it as well. But I’m still doing it. I’m going out to hear a singer tonight that I think is going to be a great star — Rhiannon Giddens — (who played) twice at the Newport Jazz Festival this year. And it was just marvelous, but I couldn’t fully appreciate it because I couldn’t hear the clarity, but her performance was beyond category, as Duke Ellington would say. So, I still get joy but it’s not the same — so it’s a problem.”
Still, as recently as the summer of 2019, Wein could still be seen being driven around the festivals on a golf cart. The gatherings were canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. Wein had planned to attend their resumption this past July, but released a statement on social media saying he would not be able to make them. He did, however, make his final appearance of sorts by introducing Andra Day via FaceTime and Mavis Staples over the phone.
The boundaries of what constitutes folk or jazz have been loose, as the lineups have evolved over the years. The 2021 folk lineup included artists like Isbell, Randy Newman, Beck, Yola, Billy Strings and Lake Street Dive. The jazz festival this summer included Day, Staples, Trombone Shorty, Yola, Robert Glasper, Christian McBride and Kamasi Washington
In 2019, the Newport Folk Festival celebrated its 60th anniversary, even as an attempt to put together a 50th anniversary Woodstock festival was falling apart. Variety wrote then that that year’s Newport Fest “was chock full of one great Woodstock moment after another — representing, you know, not the real Woodstock 50, should there still turn out to be one, but the Woodstock 50 that exists in our imaginations. Imagine a counterculturally oriented festival built on the foundations of (may we coin a phrase here?) peace, love and music, not hype, randomness and click appeal. It’s easy if you try … easier if you go to Rhode Island.”
Among the artists who played the jazz fest were Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Jon Batiste, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Snarky Puppy, Diana Krall and, of course, current artistic director McBride. Besides Dylan, artists who’ve played the folk festival include veterans from Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary and the Dixie Hummingbirds on through to John Prine, Alabama Shakes, Brandi Carlile, Sheryl Crow, Kacey Musgraves and Jim James. Dolly Parton made her Newport debut two years ago.
Wein, who was Jewish, married a Black woman, Joyce, in 1959, the same year he started up the folk festival. Their interracial marriage made for some tense moments in the civil rights era, even in most cultured circles, he indicated. He remained a student of Black culture, in and out of jazz, his entire life, and he and his wife created a 60-work collection dubbed the George and Joyce Wein Collection of African-American Art that has been on display at Boston University since 2019. Their foundation is also responsible for the annual $50,000 Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize, administered by the Studio Museum in Harlem. It established the Joyce and George Wein Chair of African American Studies at Boston University and the Alexander Family Endowed Scholarship Fund at Simmons College.
In 2014, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation opened the George and Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center, a community facility that offers free music classes in the city’s Tremé section. Joyce Wein died in 2005.
Said Jay Sweet, who took over the reins of the folk festival in 2009, “He not only invented the idea of a modern-day music festival and made the careers of numerous music icons, but his investment in music appreciation is to me what makes him the biggest icon of them all. George has an undeniable gift for making things happen. As a result, he has perhaps done more to preserve jazz than any other individual. He was my mentor and, more importantly, my friend and I will miss him dearly.”
Joyce Wein died in 2005. They had no children. It was his wish that memorial tributes be made in the form of charitable donations to Newport Festivals Foundation, the non-profit he established in 2010 to preserve the two Newport festivals, at www.newportfestivals.org/george.