Newport Folk & Jazz Fest Founder George Wein Dies at 95

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George Wein, the pianist, producer, and promoter who founded the Newport Folk & Jazz Festivals and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, died Monday (September 13) at his home in Manhattan. At the peak of his career, his organization booked shows in more than 50 cities around the world, and helped establish a blueprint for successful corporate-sponsored music festivals. He was 95. 

Born on October 3, 1925, he grew up in the city of Newton, Massachusetts, near Boston. He studied history at Northwestern University, and played piano professionally. He would continue to play his entire life, but decided early on that presenting jazz would be a less risky career than performing it. By 1950 he owned Storyville, the Boston jazz club through which he would meet Elaine Lorillard, the wealthy patron with whom he would lure contemporary jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday to her hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, for the first Newport Jazz Festival in July 1954. 

That first festival—which only barely broke even after Wein waived his fee—set a template for what would become a circuit of outdoor Jazz festivals, in places like Monterey, California, and Montreux, Switzerland. A slew of rock festivals emerged in its wake, from Woodstock to Altamont. Yet when Wein attempted to introduce rock bands like Led Zeppelin or the Allman brothers to the jazz festival, the culture clash was dramatic enough that he was briefly forced to move the event to New York in the 1970s. 

Wein founded the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 as the jazz fest’s counterpart. In 1965 it was the setting for Bob Dylan’s first electric performance, a seismic shift that sent shock waves through folk music. Wein would go on to produce events around the globe, from Paris to Seoul and across the United States. His inclination toward commercial programming, and his willingness to book acts that didn’t fit neatly into the jazz or folk spheres, ruffled the feathers of some purists.

In the ’60s and ’70s, those commercial interests led him to establish a corporation for the previously nonprofit festivals, and to recruit corporations to sponsor the events he was producing all over the world—now a common practice in the festival industry. In 1970 Wein brought his festival model south for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Presented by Shell Oil, further expanding the range of music programming and incorporating the city’s food culture.

Wein was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2005, and in 2015 received a lifetime achievement award from the trustees of the Recording Academy. At the Grammy Award ceremony, host LL Cool J remarked: “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.… he made this possible.”

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