George Wein

No entrepreneur in human history has been as instrumental in bringing live music to the masses than George Wein. And it all started in New England.

The WWII veteran, pianist and former jazz club owner established himself as the quintessential impresario of 20th century music by the inventing the formula for all future multi-day music events when he started the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival in the 1950s, then the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and La Grande Parade du Jazz in the 1970s. Be it the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Monterey Pop, Woodstock, Live Aid, Lollapalooza, Glastonbury or Fuji Rock, George Wein paved the way for them all.

Born in 1925 in Lynn, Massachusetts, and raised in Newton, Wein began playing piano at age eight, fell in love with jazz around age 12 and formed his first jazz band in high school. In 1943, he enrolled at Boston University, where he led a jazz quartet, taking a one-year study break when he enlisted in the Army and served dangerously near the French-German border.

In 1950, upon graduation from BU, the ever-entrepreneurial and jazz-crazy Wein founded the Storyville jazz club and its associated record label inside the Copley Square Hotel, relocating it to the Hotel Buckminster in Kenmore Square from 1951-52 and then moving it back to the Copley, where the club remained until closing in 1960. Over the years, a who’s who of jazz giants made live, recorded radio broadcasts from the club including Billie Holiday, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Chares Mingus, Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan and Sarah Vaughan. Musicians who performed at Storyville without recording include Louis Armstrong, William “Red” Garland, Erroll Garner, Art Blakey & His Jazz Messengers, Pee Wee Russell and the Al Vega Trio.

As Wein was quick to admit, the initial idea to hold a multi-day jazz festival was not his own. In 1952, a Newport socialite offered him a $20,000 donation ($195,000 in 2022) to organize such an event – summers in the gilded community were “terribly boring,” she said – and Wein accepted even though he’d never imagined such a thing. “I had no rulebook,” he said, hoping he could combine the energy of a jazz club in Harlem with the ambience of a classical concert at Tanglewood. In other words, George Wein wanted to create something that no jazz fan – or music fan period – had ever seen.

Nearly two years in the making, the first Newport Jazz Festival (billed as the First Annual American Jazz Festival) was held July 17-18, 1954, at the Newport Casino. It rained torrentially on the first day, but the all-star lineup – Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and Lester Young – left the 13,000-strong audience unconcerned with anything as trivial as the weather. The second day featured Oscar Peterson, Gene Krupa and George Shearing and in 1955, Louis Armstrong joined the bill. In 1956, Duke Ellington made an appearance that many critics said rescued the 57-year old’s waning career.

Over the next decade, playing the Newport Jazz Festival became de rigueur for every major jazz performer and the 1965 bill featured Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Frank Sinatra. The festival’s success inspired a wave of copycat festivals, and, like any clever entrepreneur, Wein scaled his Newport model, domestically first with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970, then globally with La Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice, France, in 1974.

In 1972, after the festival had expanded to four days and crowds had risen from 13,000 at the inaugural to about 40,000, Wein moved it to New York City – calling it the Newport Jazz Festival-New York and splitting it between Yankee Stadium and Radio City Music Hall – but in 1981 he returned it to Newport, renamed the Kool Jazz Festival as agreed with the lead sponsor. Despite some opposition from Newport residents over the years about noise and crowds, since then the three-day, three-stage event has taken place annually at the 10,000-capacity Fort Adams State Park, except for 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Four years after establishing the world’s first multi-day jazz festival, Wein set his sights on folk. In 1958, he’d noticed the rapidly growing Folk Revival movement and started booking folk artists to perform at Storyville. They sold out consistently, and Wein decided to include a “folk afternoon” in the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival, inviting well-established acts Odetta, Pete Seeger and the Weavers to play. After some jazz artists and fans objected vehemently, Wein spoke with members of the folk community and decided there was enough demand for a full-blown folk festival. Acknowledging his limited experience with the folk scene, he partnered with Albert Grossman, then Odetta’s manager, to plan and produce the festival, with Pete Seeger also contributing.

On July 9, 1959, the first Newport Folk Festival was held at Freebody Park with an audience of 13,000 and a bill that included Odetta, Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, the Kingston Trio, John Jacob Niles, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, The New Lost City Ramblers, and – in a surprise large-venue debut at the end of the show – 18-year old Joan Baez. The festival returned in 1960, expanded to three days, with a cross-cultural collection of performers from Africa, Scotland, Spain and Israel plus well-known acts like Pete Seeger, Ewan McColl, John Lee Hooker, Cisco Houston and Tommy Makem. 

The festival was not held in 1961 and 1962 but resumed in 1963, when Bob Dylan made his Newport debut, then infuriated many fans by “going electric” there in 1965 and didn’t return until 2002. After continuing annually from 1964-1969, the festival was not held from 1970-1984 due to financial difficulties and controversies over the jazz festival, but it resumed in 1985 and since then the three-day, four-stage event has taken place annually at the 10,000-capacity Fort Adams State Park, except for 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Wein maintained an active music career of his own through the years, releasing several albums and making annual appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival with his band, the Newport All-Stars. In 2005, Wein was named a “Jazz Master” by the National Endowment for the Arts and in 2014 he received an honorary Grammy.

On September 13, 2021, George Wein died at age 95. “He brought jazz and later folk music to Rhode Island,” The New York Times wrote, “and he made festivals as important as nightclubs and concert halls on musicians’ itineraries.”

(by D.S. Monahan)

Published on May 24, 2022