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George Wein 1925 – 2021

One of the most important behind-the-scenes figures in jazz history, he was largely responsible for creating the modern music festival

George Wein
George Wein (photo: John Abbott)

George Wein, a pianist, producer, and impresario whose name became synonymous with the concept of the jazz festival, died September 13 at his home in Manhattan. He was three weeks shy of his 96th birthday.

His death was announced by Carolyn McClair, the longtime publicist for the Newport Jazz Festival.

Wein was the organizing force behind the Newport Jazz Festival. He produced it from its inaugural year in 1954, assumed full control over the enterprise in 1962, and attended all but three of its annual iterations during his lifetime. He also produced a number of spinoff festivals under the name of Newport’s longtime sponsor, JVC; founded the Newport Folk Festival; and helped to create the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970.

More controversially, Wein pioneered the use of corporate underwriters in presenting his festivals. JVC was one in a long line of deep-pocketed sponsors for Newport, including Kool cigarettes, Schlitz beer, and CareFusion medical technologies. He also introduced non-jazz acts into his jazz festivals as a means to increase ticket sales. Led Zeppelin, James Brown, and Sly and the Family Stone famously headlined Newport in 1969, while at New Orleans’ “Jazz Fest” jazz itself gradually became a rarity.

Though he was often criticized for both of these moves, Wein was unapologetic. “You can’t have a festival without people,” he explained in his 2003 autobiography (with Nate Chinen), Myself Among Others. “Success for my work lies in compromise between commercial and artistic pursuits. I keep sponsors not only because my shows draw people, but also because I do so while maintaining a certain artistic credibility.”

Wein, who maintained a measure of input at his festivals even in times when his official status was diminished, remained proud of his accomplishments despite the criticism.

Those accomplishments were considerable. “More than anyone, George set the stage for what great festivals today look like,” rapper and actor LL Cool J said in introducing Wein for his Grammy Trustees Award in 2015. “Festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo—he made this possible.”

George Theodore Wein was born October 3, 1925 in Lynn, Massachusetts, to Dr. Barnet Wein, an ENT, and Ruth Wein, a homemaker and amateur piano player. Their son began taking piano lessons himself when he was eight years old, encouraged by both his music-loving parents. By high school, he had formed his first jazz band.

Initially enrolling at Boston’s Northeastern University in 1943, Wein had his education interrupted by the wartime draft; he served in the Army from 1944–46 (though without seeing combat), then resumed his studies, this time at Boston University, where he graduated in 1950. He then opened a jazz club called Storyville, which, although moving to several different locations around Boston and Cambridge, was a success.

In 1953, he was approached by Elaine Lorillard, a BU professor and wife of tobacco millionaire Louis Lorillard; she and her husband wanted to establish a festival at their summer home of Newport, Rhode Island, and wanted Wein to produce it. Recalling his teenage years, when he would spend nights on New York’s 52nd Street seeing every kind of jazz, Wein decided that “If this is what I loved, then that was what would appeal to any jazz fan.”

While it wasn’t a financial success, the 1954 Newport Jazz Festival earned rave reviews, and quickly became an annual tradition. Newport gained a reputation for landmark moments, including the legendary 1956 concert that sparked Duke Ellington’s late-career renaissance and the 1958 documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Based on its success, Wein founded the companion Folk Festival in 1959 (which enjoyed similar historical resonance when Bob Dylan first performed with an electric band at the 1965 edition).

Over the years, Wein and Newport would have their ups and downs. Riots at the 1960 festival resulted in its cancellation and a dark 1961; gatecrashing incidents in 1969 and 1971 forced the festival to move to New York. Wein nonetheless soldiered on. It was during the festival’s New York period that he began attracting corporate sponsorships like Schlitz, Kool, and JVC. The festival returned to Newport in 1981, but spinoff festivals continued to thrive in New York and elsewhere, especially under the JVC banner (Wein’s relationship with that company lasted from 1984 to 2008).

In 1970, Wein was asked to bring his festival-organizing expertise to New Orleans, where he helped found that city’s venerable Jazz Fest. A few years later, in 1979 he helped Hugh Hefner to revive the Playboy Jazz Festival in Hollywood.

Wein was still producing the Newport Jazz Festival in 2007, when he sold his Festival Productions company to Shoreline Media. Within two years of the sale, however, he’d rethought his decision and reacquired the rights to the Newport Festivals. He then established a nonprofit arm, the Newport Festivals Foundation, to put them on firmer financial ground, allowing them to continue into the indefinite future; the foundation also supports music-education programs in Rhode Island and elsewhere. At this point, Wein’s role in organizing the festival was diminished, and it continued to shrink over the years. In 2019, however, he appeared at the festival as a performing pianist. The following year’s festival was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic; in 2021, Wein sent his regrets that his advanced age was keeping him from attending the festival.

Wein was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2005. He received both the Legion d’Honneur and the Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres from the government of France; won a Grammy Trustees Award; was a distinguished member of the Board of Directors Advisory Committee of the Jazz Foundation of America; and was a lifetime honorary trustee of Carnegie Hall.

Wein was predeceased by his wife of 46 years, Joyce Alexander Wein, who died in 2005. He has no immediate survivors.

The Photography of George Wein

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.