George Wein, whose Newport Jazz Festival inspired modern music festivals, dies at 95

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George Wein created the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 at the request of the wealthy patrons of his Boston Jazz Club. But the way Wein saw it, the festival wasn’t just casual weekend entertainment for residents of the Tony Rhode Island community – it was a like-minded music lover’s paradise, a venue. meeting with the most inventive music of the day. .

“The outdoors created that feeling,” he said in an interview in 2015. “And the festivals, to this day, while not jazz festivals, it’s the attractiveness. They are a meeting place for people. ”
Festivals from Woodstock to Coachella followed the example of the Wein Jazz Festival. Before headliners included rap stars and rock bands, Wein recruited people like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. He oversaw the festival – and several others – for decades, refusing to slow down until he turned 90.

“I always say I love jazz from ‘J’ to ‘Z’,” he said in the 2015 interview. His love of the genre and its musicians would define his life.

Wein, who received an honorary Grammy in 2015 for pioneering the concept of music festivals, passed away this week, family spokeswoman Carolyn McNair confirmed. He was 95 years old.

“If you’ve been to a music festival, you’ve felt the influence of George Wein,” Jay Sweet, executive producer of Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, said in a statement to CNN.

A life defined by jazz

Wein’s musical career began when he was little in the 1930s, singing standards on the radio while his mother accompanied him on the piano. As a child, he learned classical piano, which he quite enjoyed until his older brother brought home a Louis Armstrong record. His immediate affinity for these early jazz records marked the course of his life, he told Hamilton College in a 2001 interview for his jazz archives.

By the time he was in college, young Wein had formed a jazz group that performed in seedy bars in Massachusetts. He and his fellow young musicians, most of whom were not of drinking age at the venues where they performed, were paid meager sums for their performances, he said in the Hamilton College interview. His experiences as a teenage pianist were formative, although their performances sometimes included bar fights.

In 1944, Wein joined the US military as a combat engineer, and he played the piano to escape punishment – officer dances always needed a pianist, he said.

“Playing the piano had its advantages,” he said in the Hamilton College interview.

Playing music in the military was a “saving grace” for Wein, but when World War II ended and he graduated from Boston University, he realized that playing music from professional manner would not be fulfilling. He had known so many musicians who had mastered their craft but whose lives had collapsed off the stage, he said.

“I think seeing them drink in their bedroom at night, you know, and so alone and so far from it, I said, ‘I’m not sure that’s the life I really want, though. I love to play and I love music, ”he said in the Hamilton College interview.

Giving up jazz altogether was never an option, however, in 1950, with the limited funds he had saved by going to college thanks to GI Bill, Wein opened the Storyville Jazz Club in Boston. He booked artists whose music he loved – and many of those artists went on to become the genre’s biggest stars.

“I was interested in playing as many jazz greats as possible,” he said in a 2008 interview with journalist Marc Myers of the JazzWax blog. “I haven’t really looked at the box office results.”

Storyville barely hits breakeven every week, but it attracts a valued clientele, including Elaine Lorillard. The wealthy socialite approached Wein to bring jazz to her upscale Newport, Rhode Island neighborhood. Wein didn’t know much about organizing concerts that could accommodate as many guests as a few dozen club patrons, but he agreed.

“I saw it as an opportunity to promote jazz on a large scale and to expose people of all ages to this great music,” he told JazzWax in 2008. “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, outdoors, in a relaxed and relaxed setting. “
George Wein (right) laughs with Louis Armstrong (center) and trumpeter Bobby Hackett at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival.
Wein said he had borrowed ideas from “medieval festival times”, but his first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 became the model for future music festivals, with its exterior setting, range of musicians, and setting. in annual summer scene.

Future editions of the jazz festival included performances by Miles Davis, Duke Ellington – who recorded a live album at the festival in 1956 – and Billie Holiday, among others. Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald will also release an album together, recorded live at the 1957 festival, before Holiday’s death. Subsequent acts included Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Chick Corea.

In 1959 – the same year he married black biochemist Joyce Alexander – Wein started the Newport Folk Festival, which hosted artists as disparate as Joan Baez, the Pixies, and Dolly Parton. Although it has since been expanded to include country and indie rock artists, during the 1965 festival Bob Dylan shocked devoted folks when he started moaning on an electric guitar. As Wein wrote in his 2004 autobiography, the moment ushered in a new era of the genre: “Rock and roll was no longer a taboo; if Dylan could cross that line, [folk fans]. ”
George Wein poses in his New York apartment in 2004.
In the decades that followed, Wein helped create several other music festivals, such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Essence Music Festival, through his company Festival Productions. And although he eventually handed over the reins of the Newport Jazz Festival to younger organizers, he remained essential in the festival’s operations. His successor as artistic director, Christian McBride, called him “a beacon for anyone who runs a big festival”.

Sweet, the executive producer of Newport Festivals, said Wein was the epitome of an “impresario.”

“He was an icon, a maverick, an artist, an activist, a philanthropist, a mentor, an inspiration and most of all my friend,” said Sweet. “He left an unparalleled legacy and now it’s our job to continue to grow him.”

Wein has hardly slowed down over the years. Upon Joyce’s death in 2005, Wein created an award in his name, the Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize, which rewards $ 50,000 to innovative black artists through the Studio Museum Harlem. In 2013, at age 88, he performed at Lincoln Center in New York City with a cast of “Newport All-Stars”. In a statement prior to the performance, Wein said “Jazz is life!” – a fitting feeling for a man who has devoted most of his life to the genre.

“Jazz has been my whole life,” he said in the 2013 release. “It means everything. I learned so much from jazz that it affected me from that day until today – it’s a long time to be influenced by great music. “

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