The Festival King: George Wein Casts A Long Shadow

photo by Laura Brown

Videos by American Songwriter


There’s a scene in the great 1959 film Jazz On A Summer’s Day, shot at Newport Jazz Festival, which is often cited as an inspiration by rock and rollers like Keith Richards. A jazz rhythm section backs Chuck Berry for his nighttime set, and the band does everything to rattle Berry’s un-jazz style. Berry rides it through, and in a few short years, rock and roll would be the order of the day. You can see the change coming in the film’s surveys of the audience of ‘50s hipsters too – the men with their clean-shaven faces and slicked-back hair, the women in funky sunglasses, sundresses and Derby hats.

As it were, the year the film was shot – 1958, the fifth annual festival in Newport – was a boon year, with performances by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Mahalia Jackson.

“When we started you could actually break even on ticket sales,” says George Wein, the octogenarian jazz impresario who founded the New York Jazz Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, Newport Folk Festival, New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival, and a host of other international concerts and festivals.

“And now you really can’t,” Wein says of today’s festival business.

In 2007, George Wein sold his company, Festival Productions, which had produced the Newport festivals for nearly 50 years, to Festival Network. After producing the 2007 Newport festivals, the new company went under in a load of debt. Wein brushes off the dilettante promoters with typical nonchalance.

“It’s very simple, it’s a matter of economics,” he says. “The people who bought my company, they thought they had a lot of money and they didn’t understand how to manage the money they had. And in a year and 11 months, they went through every cent.”

Wein is no stranger to the ever-changing festival business. In the ‘70s, he pioneered corporate sponsorship for his festivals when the price of artists went up.

“I had a man in Milwaukee by the name of Ben Barkin who worked for Schlitz. And he came to us one day out of a clear blue sky,” Wein says about signing on one of his first corporate benefactors.

While Wein is steeped in the New York jazz world, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he saw another thing coming and created a folk festival at Newport. Soon the Newport Folk Festival took off, with historic performances by Bob Dylan in 1963 and 1964, and a paradigm-shifting electric performance in 1965.

“Bob Dylan is welcome at Newport any time,” says Wein. “We have only respect and admiration for Dylan – what he’s meant to our history and what our history has meant to him.”

Wein says a new generation of musicians inspired by Newport’s past has helped bring back the spirit of the early days. At the 2009 Newport Folk Festival, the younger performers wanted to be on stage with Pete Seeger.

“All these younger groups – Jim James and all these wonderful people that have so much talent – they got in the spirit of what we used to have literally 40 years ago and it’s a real… I don’t know how to describe it… but I’m so excited about it – because the musicians are excited about it.”

But, Wein also adds cautiously, the past can’t always be recreated. “Bob came back [in 2002] – relatively acoustic – with a country group. When we brought him back, we sold out immediately. But with a Bob Dylan, you can’t go home again. There’s no way he can be the Dylan of 1962, 1963.”

In the late ‘60s, with the success of Newport, local promoters in New Orleans were interested in creating a festival that showcased the unique music and culture of Louisiana. It was a no-brainer for Wein. “Everybody wants to go to New Orleans,” he says.

“They wanted to do a Newport in the South. From the very beginning I had to relate it to what I’d learned from producing the folk festival with people like Pete Seeger and, of course, my knowledge of jazz that went back to the totality of early New Orleans jazz, and up through the contemporary scene that was happening in New Orleans.”

In more recent times, promoters have begun exploring more city-based events in the mold of the mega-successful South By Southwest, the music mecca in Austin, Texas. AC Entertainment, who co-produce Bonnaroo, recently worked on two city-based events, Big Ears in Knoxville, Tennessee, and MoogFest in Asheville, North Carolina.

“In the beginning we used to do that,” says Wein. “In the days between the first and second weekend, we were doing things all over the town.” But slowly the focus was put on the big double-weekend events, the arts and crafts, and the food.

“The food in New Orleans is an attraction in itself. People will come to New Orleans and go to the festival just to eat,” says Wein enthusiastically.

While in many ways Bonnaroo looks like a festival created in the image of Jazz Fest – there’s no doubt the New Orleans-based co-promoters, Superfly, took copious notes in their home town – Wein disagrees on its influence, seeing the outdoor lineage of Bonnaroo and Indio, California’s Coachella originating with Woodstock.

“Total escapism,” he says of those festivals. “People want to escape from this world and spend three days at that festival. And it’s a fantastic thing. It all started with Woodstock. Newport was never like that. New Orleans was never like that. [Jazz Fest] is escapism for a few hours, not for three days!”

In the course of developing the New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival, Wein met a young man named Quint Davis who would go on to shape the direction of the burgeoning fest. Slowly, an organization started to build around him, dubbed Festival Productions Inc.-New Orleans.

“I needed somebody who knew what I didn’t know,” Wein says about meeting and hiring Davis.

For Wein – an old school jazz lover – that meant Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans funk, and rhythm and blues. Quint Davis’ life was New Orleans music and culture, but he quickly learned the business side.

“I knew the festival would go on because we’re building a local organization and Quint was a natural leader. The people around him followed him. I never had people working with him say, ‘Why do you need Quint?’”

Though Wein sold his interest in the New Orleans offshoot of Festival Productions to AEG, he and Davis remain close and Wein still serves as a consultant to the festival.

“Quint calls me all the time,” Wein says. “I’m his outlet. He talks to me about everything. Quint is a 24/7 guy. He never stops working. My consultancy is just listening. Once in awhile I say something he pays attention to,” he jokes.

In January, Jazz Fest promoters announced the 2011 festival lineup, which will take place over the two weekends from April 29 to May 8 and include performances by Arcade Fire, Robert Plant, The Strokes, Wilco, Lauryn Hill, Willie Nelson, and John Mellencamp.

Unlike many in the music industry, Wein is also a musician and has a long history in playing, managing, and promoting jazz. He says it can be tricky to balance art and commerce.

“When I played Duke Ellington in ‘56, I didn’t know that Duke was at a low point in his career. I idealized Duke Ellington. To me it was a privilege to present Duke Ellington. It wasn’t a business situation. That I could present Duke Ellington – a man I worshipped – and I didn’t realize that he was in a low point in his career and that Newport brought him back for the last 20 years of his life. He used to say – and I never knew what he meant – ‘I was born at Newport in 1956’.”

In recent years, Wein has resurrected his Newport All Stars band with top players like Randy Brecker, Lew Tabackin, Lewis Nash, Howard Alden, and Anat Cohen.

“It keeps me alive,” he says. “[It’s my] dedication to the festivals and to the young musicians that I’m hearing all the time.”

At the age of 85, Wein is still a respected leader in the world of jazz, and remains at the forefront of the festival business as he revives and transforms his Newport festivals.

“I just left the meeting of the Jazz At Lincoln Center board. The Jazz At Lincoln Center board is set upon one thing: raising money to support Jazz At Lincoln Center. Well, in New Orleans it’s totally different. The festival supports the foundation. If the festival didn’t make money, there’d be no foundation. That’s just a little difference between New Orleans and the rest of the world.”

For the first time in over 50 years, Wein has decided to turn the Newport festivals into non-profits too, mirroring Lincoln Center and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

“My whole dedication now is Newport and non-profit – both for the Jazz and Folk. I want both those festivals to go on after I’m gone.”


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