Tuesday, September 14, 2021

George Wein: A legacy of innovation without ego

A day after announcement of his departure from this vale, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the news that George Wein is gone. The music impresario died peacefully in his sleep on Monday at age 95 – just three weeks shy of his 96th birthday. 

My, what an imprint he left the world of music, jazz in particular, though there was so much more given his creation (with Pete Seeger) of the Newport Folk Festival, creating the more-global New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and much later, producing the Essence Music Festival in the Crescent City, which celebrated a much broader spectrum of Black music

Let me dig a bit into the essence of George Wein. Advancing the music and creating opportunities for musicians were the driving force in his life. He wasn’t in it for the money, although that came to him through his success in creating new performance formats, and adding innovations throughout his 70-year career.

George Wein, 2009
He spurned his parents’ wishes to go to medical school in Boston. Instead, the yeoman jazz piano player, still in college, started producing concerts here and there. Then, he opened two jazz clubs in Beantown: Storyville and its companion Mahogany Hall, starting in 1950.

Then Elaine Lorillard came knocking. She and her tobacco-scion husband, Louis, wanted to shake things up the dowdy summer scene for their fellow socialites in Newport. They weren’t sure what they wanted, but George had an idea – a multi-day outdoor jazz festival. Money wasn’t his driving force here either. When the weekend was done, the festival netted a profit of about $125 – and only then because Wein didn’t take a producer’s fee.

But the format and Newport mystique took hold. Soon came the companion Newport Folk Festival. George had created a new concept for an outdoor popular music format with these two pioneering festivals. Others – produced by himself or other entrepreneurs, started popping up across the US and around the globe. Many have said that without Newport, there wouldn’t have been Woodstock or other mega-crowd popular music events. Indeed, George Wein was their torch bearer.

He had his hand in many other festival ventures – Jazz Fest in New Orleans, the Grand Parade du Jazz in Nice, France, festivals in Japan, the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. And so on. And so on. And so on.

George and festival co-founder Elaine Lorillard, 1994
More musicians were getting noticed, had career revivals in some cases, and were working steadily. They enjoyed performing at Wein venues and festivals because he was one of them, and understood them.

The next Wein innovation was attracting corporate sponsors who would pay for naming rights to these expensive events. It meant he and other producers wouldn’t take a financial bath from inclement weather or lagging ticket sales. By golly, it worked – and has become the norm rather than the exception.

The newest profound idea he had was ensuring the Newport Jazz Festival would outlive him. There had been a sad chapter in 2007, when Wein, pondering retirement in his early 80s, sold his company, Festival Productions Inc., to some young hotshot entrepreneurs with grandiose ideas. They ran it into the ground in less than two years.

George Wein at Newport, 2017
Wein then reacquired the storied festival names and rekindled Newport’s success and longevity with the help of some wealthy friends. A year later, he set up a nonprofit, Newport Festivals Foundation, to run the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival long after he was gone. With Executive Director Jay Sweet and Newport Jazz Festival artistic director Christian McBride taking over the helm, the ship is in good hands. The Foundation has a contract to use Fort Adams State Park in Newport for its festivals that runs several decades.

We can thank George Wein. Always thinking ahead, always innovating, always with the music – and his fellow musicians – in mind.

I also have to thank George for something more personal. It was his steady encouragement  as I wrote about and photographed his music festivals over the years, primarily in Newport, but sometimes in other locales. We first talked in 1979, which was the 25th anniversary of the first Newport Jazz Festival. By then, the festival had been sent packing to New York City by a 1971 Newport riot by gate-crowding rowdies. But in 1981, it returned to the City-by-the-Sea, followed by the Newport Folk Festival in 1985. They have been a steady cultural force ever since.

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