George Wein, co-founder and creator of the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival that set the stage for music festivals throughout the world, died peacefully in his sleep, in his Manhattan apartment on Sept. 13. He was 95.
His death was announced by spokeswoman, Carolyn McClair.
Wein, who presented music around the world for seven decades was honored by Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the French Legion d’Honneur and Chile’s Order of Bernardo O’Higgins. In addition to the Grammy Award, he was named an NEA Jazz Master (Jazz Advocate) in 2005. He was a lifetime Honorary Trustee of Carnegie Hall and on the board of The Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation. In addition, he was the recipient of honorary degrees from Boston University, the Berklee College of Music, Rhode Island College of Music and North Carolina Central University (HBCU).
Wein and his wife, who died in 2005, created The George and Joyce Wein Collection of African American Art, which went on display at Boston University in 2019. The collection contained 60 works from artists including Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Norman Lewis, Beauford Delaney and Jacob Lawrence. The Joyce and George Wein Foundation contributions include The Studio Museum in Harlem, which administers the annual $50,000 Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize. The award recognizes and honors African American artists who demonstrate great innovation, promise and creativity. The Foundation also established The Joyce and George Wein Chair of African American Studies at Boston University and the Alexander Family Endowed Scholarship Fund at Simmons College. The Foundation also supports Dr. Glory’s Youth Theater, a multi-ethnic non-profit children’s theater that presents original works by Dr. Glory Van Scott twice a year.
In 2014, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation opened the George and Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center, an education and community facility that offers free music classes in the city’s Tremé section. He said it gave him great pleasure “to drive down North Rampart Street to see their names across the top of a building in a city where Joyce was not welcome in the first meetings to discuss the festival in New Orleans.”
Just before his 90th birthday, Wein tapped producer Jay Sweet to work as executive producer of the folk festival and he named bassist Christian McBride as artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival in 2017.
George Theodore Wein was born in Newton, MA, on, Oct. 3, 1925, to Jewish parents. His father, Dr. Barnet Wein, was an ear, nose, and throat specialist. His mother, Ruth, was a homemaker, and he had an older brother, Lawrence. He began piano lessons at the age of eight. While still in Newton High School he played in various jazz bands around Boston.
After a year in college, he was drafted into the Army. Following his discharge, he played piano around Boston while attending Boston University on the G.I. Bill, graduating in 1950.
In his autobiography, “Myself Among Others: A Life in Music” (2003), written with Nate Chinen, he said that he knew by then that “music was a crucial part of my being,” but that he also knew that he “had neither the confidence nor the desire to devote my life to being a professional jazz musician.” By the fall of 1950 he was a full-time nightclub owner; by the summer of 1954 he was a festival promoter.
Wein opened his own jazz club, Storyville, in Boston at age 25, and created a record label of the same name. In 1954, he met Newport, Rhode Island socialites, Louis and Elaine Lorillard, who invited him to organize a festival to be funded by them. “I saw it as an opportunity to promote jazz on a large scale and expose people of all ages to this great music,” he told JazzWax in 2008. “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.”
This first outdoor festival in the United States became an annual event in Newport becoming the blueprint for festivals around the globe. Early performers included Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis among other greats.
In 1959, Wein married Joyce Alexander, an African American biochemist and that same year, he co-founded the Newport Folk Festival with folk artist Pete Seeger. They presented musicians of folk, blues, and gospel, including Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, Mavis Staples, Dolly Parton and the Dixie Hummingbirds.
Early on musicians bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach had an issue with Wein’s booking policy, in protest they staged a smaller festival simultaneously with the Newport festival. Their festival never gained traction and the dispute was worked out.
In 1960, Wein set up Festival Productions, a corporation to oversee his fast-growing empire. During its peak festival and tours were being produced globally in over 50 cities. In 1970, he founded the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which featured an array of genres from blues, R&B, and Second Line (cultural tradition).
In 1972, one year after the Newport riots, Wein came to New York City, and produced concerts in the summer months when Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall were traditionally closed.
Wein became a pioneer in corporate sponsorship in the late 1960s and ’70s, that included; the Schlitz Salute to Jazz, the Kool Jazz Festival (which featured jazz and R&B artists like Cannonball Adderley and Freddie Hubbard on the same bill with the O’Jays or Ohio Players. Those concerts became annual celebrations of Black music) and a partnership with the Japanese electronics company JVC, which lasted for 25 years. In 1995 he and Essence magazine’s co-founder Ed Lewis, developed the Essence Music Festival that became the largest African American culture and music event in the United States.
“I never realized that you could make money until sponsors came along,” he told The New York Times in 2004. “The credibility we’d been working on all those years always brought media notice. And then the opportunity for media notice was picked up by sponsors.”
Within two years of selling his company in 2007, the young new owners went bankrupt. At age 81, Wein reacquired the company and remained active until his death. Wein set up a non-profit foundation to protect the Newport festival’s future.
Wein, continued to play piano into his 80s, leading small groups, like the Newport All-Stars, at his festivals and various spots. (He performed in public for the first time in several years at Newport in 2019. It was where he announced, “my last performance as a jazz musician.”
Both music festivals were cancelled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic but they returned in 2021. Two days before the festival began Wein announced he would not be in attendance. He did participate remotely, introducing the singers Mavis Staples, by phone, and Andra Day, via FaceTime.
“At my age of 95, making the trip will be too difficult for me,” he wrote. “I am heartbroken to miss seeing all my friends.” But, he added, with a new team in place to run both festivals, “I can see that my legacy is in good hands.”
In his 2003 biography, “Myself Among Others: A Life in Music,” with Nate Chinen, Wein wrote, “whether it’s one of the many festival producers throughout the world, or the concert promoters, or the individual nightclub owners struggling night to night––their contributions are essential to the history of this music. I’m glad to have been part of this process: in the development of the jazz festival, the acceptance of this music as art, the efforts to bring jazz to a wider audience worldwide …”
Wein is survived by his nieces Margie Wein of Brooklyn, NY, and Carol Wein of Watertown, MA; sister-in-law Theodora McLaurin of Chestnut Hill, MA; and long-time partner, Dr. Glory Van Scott of New York City.
Funeral and memorial services will be announced at a later date.