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GEORGE WEIN,
1925-2021

George Wein, creator of the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals in the mid-1950s—who was still involved in the events nearly 70 years later—died Monday at his apartment in Manhattan. He was 95.

Wein, a jazz pianist who opened the Boston club Storyville in 1950, presented his first outdoor festival in Newport, R.I., in 1954 with Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald among the performers.

It barely made a profit, but his benefactors invited him back the next year. Soon, promoters around the world were using Newport as a model for presenting jazz, making Wein the godfather of the circuit and Newport a holy grail of a booking for newcomers and established artists.

Through the company he formed in 1960, Festival Productions, Wein would eventually produce festivals throughout the U.S., including early versions of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. In its heyday, Festival Productions was producing festivals in 50 cities around the world and handling tours.

His success in Newport led to the creation of the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, perhaps still most famous for the night in 1965 when Bob Dylan “went electric.” 

Performances at Newport have been career-makers. Miles Davis got his Columbia deal after a solid 1955 appearance; Duke Ellington’s career was rejuvenated in 1956 after a much-covered performance; Mississippi John Hurt's career revival began with a 1963 performance at the folk festival; and Kris Kristofferson was introduced by Johnny Cash in 1969, the year Led Zeppelin played the jazz festival. (It was the one and only year rock bands were allowed on the stage.) Scores of “live at Newport” albums have been released over the last 60 years by the likes of Muddy Waters, Nina Simone and Ray Charles.

After a series of issues with Newport city officials, Wein left Rhode Island and moved the Newport Jazz Festival to New York City in 1972, where it would be held in multiple venues over a couple of weeks. The series lasted for almost 40 years, even after Wein resumed producing the jazz festival in Newport beginning in 1981 and the folk festival in 1985.

Wein was considered a pioneer in engaging corporate sponsorship of festivals, bringing Schlitz beer, Kool cigarettes and the electronics company JVC into the jazz world in the ‘60s and ‘70s. A Ben & Jerry’s ice cream sponsorship was crucial to the survival of the folk festival in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Wein was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2005 and received a Trustees Award for lifetime achievement from the Recording Academy in 2015. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton honored him with all-star jazz concerts at the White House.

Wein sold his company in 2007, then regained control of a handful of festivals in 2009 and 2010. He focused on the Newport festivals, creating a nonprofit organization, the Newport Festivals Foundation, in 2011. (Jay Sweet is executive producer of the Newport Festivals Foundation; Danny Melnick and bassist/bandleader Christian McBride have overseen the jazz fest since 2016.)

Wein had to cancel attending this year’s jazz festival in July. He wrote on Facebook: "I got to go to the Newport Jazz Festival after all — well, my voice did. And, I got to introduce my dear friend Mavis Staples. What a special treat!"

 

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