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George Wein, Newport Jazz Festival Founder And Pioneering Music Promoter, Is Dead At 95

George Wein, the music promoter who reconfigured the concert experience as the founder of the influential Newport Jazz Festival and co-founder of the Newport Folk Music Festival and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, passed away at the age of 95.

Rise To Prominence: Born on Oct. 3, 1925, in Lynn, Massachusetts, Wein was introduced to music as an eight-year-old piano student. He formed a jazz band in high school and performed in the Boston area before serving in the World War II-era U.S. Army.

Following his military service, he graduated from Boston University in 1950 and later returned to the school to teach a course on jazz history. He established the Storyville record label and opened a small jazz club in Boston, whose patrons included tobacco company heir Louis Lorillard and his socialite wife Elaine.

The Lorillards recruited Wein to organize a jazz music festival in Newport, Rhode Island, an exclusive resort area where they kept a summer home. The Newport Jazz Festival debuted in the summer of 1954 as the nation’s first outdoor jazz music festival, with Billie Holiday as the event’s headliner. The event grew in prominence through the 1950s with performances by the likes of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day and Dinah Washington.

Initially, many Newport residents were unhappy with the festival, with overt complaints about traffic gridlock and quiet grumbling about the presence of Black performers and audience members in a luxury area with no history of racial integration. However, the release of the 1958 concert film “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” brought the event to a wider audience and secured Newport’s role as a cultural center.

The Sounds Of More Music: Wein followed the success of the jazz event by teaming with Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel to launch the annual Newport Folk Festival in 1959. This event got off to a shaky start — no festivals were held in 1961 and 1962 — but then became a focal point for the music industry with its passionate embrace of the goals of the civil rights movement and with Bob Dylan’s still-discussed electric guitar debut in 1965.

Wein established Festival Productions during the 1960s to promote jazz events, most notably the launch of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970 and Los Angeles’ Playboy Jazz Festival in 1979. He also pioneered the use of corporate sponsorship to finance and promote music events, including the Kool Jazz Festival and the JVC Jazz Festivals.

Wein received numerous honors for his contributions to the music industry, including a Grammy Honorary Trustee Award in 2015. During the Grammy presentation, LL Cool J acknowledged Wein’s legacy by declaring that “more than anyone, George set the stage for what great festivals today look like. Festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo — he made this possible.”

Photo: George Wein at the 2014 Newport Jazz Festival. Photo by Todd Van Hoosear / Flickr Creative Commons.

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