The Man Who Introduced Music Festivals to the World

George Wein changed the way Americans experience their music.

The pioneering jazz musician and music producer launched the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. It was the first big outdoor music event of its kind and has spawned a host of other groundbreaking musical venues since then.

On a picture-perfect summer day in Newport, Rhode Island, there’s a clear blue sky, a gentle breeze from the harbor, and crowds sitting under white tents or stretched out on the grass.

They’re attending the annual celebration that put this city on the world map: the 2010 Newport Jazz Festival.

The man who started it all, 84-year-old George Wein, settles in at the piano with his back-up band, the Newport All-Stars.

Wein started piano lessons when he was eight years old. By the time he was a teenager, he had developed a taste — and a talent — for jazz.

Raised in a Boston suburb, he had a chance to see the great dance and swing bands of the ’30s and ’40s — Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Count Basie.

After a stint in the army, Wein went to Boston University, and took courses to prepare for a career in medicine, out of respect for his father, who was doctor. But he played music at local clubs seven nights a week and Sunday afternoons all during college.

A few months after he graduated, Wein opened his own jazz club.

That was in 1950.

It wasn’t long before Wein became a respected jazz musician and producer.

A regular at the club introduced Wein to a wealthy couple from Newport, Rhode Island.

Elaine and Louis Lorillard complained that Newport — an exclusive seaside resort famous for its mansions — was boring in the summer. The couple gave Wein $20,000 and the freedom to create a jazz event there.

Wein says that event changed the culture of music.

“1954 was first outdoor music event of its kind and it was the Newport Jazz Festival. There had been classical festivals. And there had a been a few things that were called festivals,” he says. “But not big outdoor events for thousands of people. And that was the foreground for everything like Woodstock and all the different festivals that have come after it. Not just jazz. It all started at Newport.”

Wein didn’t have plan for his life.

He just enjoys making things happen, and he followed his instincts.

“Because you’re always thinking, you become an organizer. When I was a kid and I wanted to play baseball, I called up nine kids to create a baseball team. If I wanted a band, I called up all the kids who could play. I just had that in me. That was what I did. So it wasn’t that I decided I wanted to do a festival, or I wanted to have a nightclub or I wanted to be a musician. I just did it as it happened.”

Other festivals happened as well. Wein created the Newport Folk Festival in 1959.

Many say that event — featuring artists like the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez — helped spark the folk music revival of the 1960s.

At the 2010 Newport Folk Festival, George Wein’s dynamic mix of artists is evident.

There are masters of traditional American music, like 87-year-old Doc Watson, as well as emerging artists, like Andrew Bird, who draws crowds with his unique style of violin.

Another of Wein’s signature events is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which he created 1970. He has produced a two-week-long jazz festival in New York for nearly 40 years, and brought music festivals to Europe and Asia.

Bob Jones, a senior producer who began working with the festivals in 1963, says there’s much more to Wein than his skills as a music promoter and producer.

“He’s very funny, he can be very funny at times,” says Jones. “And he’s a wonderful musician and that’s a big asset, because he understands what it is to sit in front of a crowd and play and entertain.”

Wein has provided decades of work for musicians, delivered tourism dollars to cities around the world and brought music to the people.

But most of all, George Wein just loves to entertain.

For VOA News, I”m Rhonda Miller in Newport, Rhode Island.


Broadcast history: Voice of America, Aug. 15, 2010–100759274/162969.html


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