In Memoriam: George Wein, 1925–2021


George Wein created the blueprint of the modern-day music festival.

(Photo: John Abbott)

George Wein, pianist, NEA Jazz Master and recipient of DownBeat’s Lifetime Achievement Award, best known for his help in creating world-renowned events like the Newport Jazz Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, died yesterday, Sept. 13, at age 95.

Born in Boston on Oct. 3, 1925, Wein was a jazz fan from an early age and used his passion for the art form to study music and learn the piano. As a teenager, he made regular trips into New York City to catch live performances and, occasionally, get the chance to sit in. As he told Boston University’s Bostonia magazine, “They would let me play a number and then kick me off the bandstand.”

After a stint in the Army during World War II, Wein returned to Boston, where he enrolled in college and spent his free time performing around the city, helping put together pickup bands to back up touring musicians, and booking shows. That eventually led to him leasing a space and starting Storyville, a jazz club that became the hub for the city’s jazz scene, welcoming everyone from Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to its stage. Along the way, he also founded Storyville Records, which released early recordings by Lee Konitz, Toshiko Akiyoshi and vocalist Teddi King. (Wein’s label is not connected to the Danish imprint of the same name.)

In the early ’50s, Wein met Louis and Elaine Lorillard, a wealthy couple from New England whose marriage was, in part, the inspiration for the film High Society. Jazz fans both, the Lorillards floated the idea of bringing the music to Newport, Rhode Island, for a summer outdoor festival. With some help from executives at Columbia Records, the inaugural Newport Jazz Festival was held in 1954 with sets by, among others, Holiday, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughn. Outside of 2020, when the event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the festival has been a mainstay of the summer concert calendar ever since.

Wein’s involvement with Newport Jazz helped set the course of his career in the arts as he spent the rest of his life establishing festivals and concerts around the world. A few years after working with the Lorillards, he helped found the Newport Folk Festival with Pete and Peggy Seeger and booked a jazz program for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.

In 1960, Wein started Festival Productions Inc., fully entering the business of concert promotion. The list of events that he was involved with is staggering: the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Playboy Jazz Festival, the Grand Parade du Jazz Festival in France and the Virginia-based Hampton Jazz Festival. “We must have had 20 to 25 festivals a year at the height of what I was doing — we were traveling all the time,” he told Bostonia’s Jean Hennelly Keith.

And, for good or for ill, Wein also helped establish the precedent of corporate sponsorship, giving brands top-billing in the name of his festivals, starting with a 1968 touring festival called the Schlitz Salute to Jazz.

“That was very rare in those days,” Wein said to Relix’s Dean Budnick in 2014. “It hardly existed at all, and now, sponsorship is everywhere — every event is sponsored. They call the [New York Mets’] baseball stadium Citi Field. So we pioneered that whole thing.”

Even as his career as a concert promoter and booker was flourishing, Wein continued to lend his talents as a pianist and vocalist to recordings and live performances. His discography finds his name in the liner notes alongside legends like saxophonist/clarinetist Sidney Bechet, drummer Jo Jones and trumpeter Ruby Braff. In 1955, Wein released his first album as bandleader, Wein, Women & Song, for Atlantic, a supple showcase for his light touch on the keyboard. His last recording was 1993’s Swing That Music. Wein was also a fixture in the lineups for festivals around the world, leading an ever-changing ensemble called the Newport All-Stars through a set of standards. In recent years, that group has included trumpeter Nicholas Payton, bassist Esperanza Spalding, clarinetist Anat Cohen and the late drummer Jimmy Cobb.

After selling Festival Productions, Wein turned his attention to philanthropic work, such as establishing the George and Joyce Wein Professorship in African American Studies at Boston University (his alma mater), and serving as an advisor on the board of directors for organizations like Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Apollo Theatre Foundation.

“That’s still the raison d’etre for where I’m at — the music,” Wein told the San Francisco Chronicle’s James Sullivan in advance of the 1998 edition of the Newport Folk Festival. “I can’t forget that. I don’t want to forget it.” DB

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