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George Wein (1925–2021), Newport Jazz Festival founder

by Linnea Crowther

George Wein was a jazz impresario who founded the groundbreaking Newport Jazz Festival.

Newport Jazz Festival

Founded by Wein in 1954, the Newport Jazz Festival, held each summer in Newport, Rhode Island, is the United States’ premiere outdoor jazz festival. Jazz greats who have played the festival include Miles Davis (1926–1991), Duke Ellington (1899–1974), Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996), Billie Holiday (1915–1959), and Judy Garland (1922–1969), among countless others. Recordings of these live performances have gone down as some of the best jazz records of all time.

Wein, who owned the Storyville jazz club in Boston and had founded the Storyville record label, was approached by Louis and Elaine Lorillard to help organize and book a jazz festival in their hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. The resulting Newport Jazz Festival included academic panel discussions as well as live musical performances. One of the earliest modern music festivals, it influenced decades of festivals across many genres of popular music.

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Over the years, Wein guided the festival through many challenges, including initial resistance by Newport’s affluent residents. He expanded the scope of musical styles to include soul and rock music in the 1960s. He oversaw the festival’s move to New York City in the 1970s and its return to Newport in the 1980s. He also pioneered corporate sponsorships to provide financial support for the expanding event.

Other work

Wein, along with his company, Festival Productions, helped to start festivals in other cities, including the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He also founded the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, which helped promote the folk music revival and featured notable performances by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, including Dylan’s infamous switch to electric guitar in 1965.

In addition to working as a promoter, Wein was a jazz pianist who recorded and toured with his band, the Newport All-Stars. He released 11 albums between 1955 and 1993, mainly in swing and Dixieland styles. He chronicled his life in the world of jazz music in his autobiography, “Myself Among Others: A Life in Music.”

Wein received honors from Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton for his contributions to jazz music and American culture. He was also decorated with France’s Legion d’honneur and was a lifetime honorary trustee of Carnegie Hall.

Notable quote

“I saw it as an opportunity to promote jazz on a large scale and expose people of all ages to this great music. 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, outside, in a relaxed, laid-back setting.” –from a 2008 interview with JazzWax

Tributes to George Wein

Full obituary: The New York Times

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