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George Wein

Legendary Festival Impresario George Wein Dead At 95

George Wein (Nina Westervelt)
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NEW YORK CITY (CelebrityAccess) — George T. Wein, the noted promoter, pianist, and producer, and philanthropist who founded the Newport Jazz Festival and co-founded the Newport Folk Festival with Peter Seeger and Theodore Bikel, has died. He was 95.

According to an obituary published by the Festival Foundation, Wein died in his sleep on Monday at his home in New York City on September 13, 2021.

“He not only invented the idea of a modern-day music festival and made the careers of numerous music icons, but his investment in music appreciation is to me what makes him the biggest icon of them all,” said Newport Folk producer Jay Sweet. “George has an undeniable gift for making things happen. As a result, he has perhaps done more to preserve jazz than any other individual. He was my mentor and, more importantly, my friend and I will miss him dearly.”

Born in Boston in 1925, Wein began his career in music as a jazz pianist, playing with local bands around the city while still in high school.

After a stint in the army, Wein graduated from Boston University and launched his own jazz club, the Storyville, followed by a record label of the same name.

In 1954, Wein met Newport socialites, Louis and Elaine Lorillard who convinced him to create summer music events for the seaside community. Inspired by the classical music festival in nearby Tanglewood, Wein launched the Newport Jazz Festival.

“What was a festival to me? I had no rule book to go by. I knew it had to be something unique, that no jazz fan had ever been exposed to,” Wein wrote in his memoir. “I remembered my nights in New York City when I had started off in Greenwich Village at 8 pm, gone to Harlem, and ended up seven hours later at 52nd Street. I could never get enough jazz. I heard Dixieland, big bands, swing, unique singers, and modern jazz. If this is what I loved, then that’s what should appeal to any jazz fan. I’m sure that’s what directed my concept of the Newport Jazz Festival … They wanted to ‘do something with jazz’ in their community. I took that vague but earnest request and hatched the festival. There is no doubt that the driving force and inspiration behind the festival was Elaine … Louis provided the necessary financial support and local influence.”

The Newport Jazz Festival quickly became one of the leading jazz events in the U.S., presenting performances by artists such as Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Mahalia Jackson, Tony Bennett, Chick Corea as well as Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Jon Batiste, Robert Glasper, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Snarky Puppy, Diana Krall, Christian McBride and countless others.

In 1959, lightning struck twice for Wein when he partnered with Pete Seeger to launch the Newport Folk Festival. Like its jazz-focused sibling, the Newport Folk Festival quickly established itself as a major annual event, attracting some of the biggest names in music to its stages, including Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary and the Dixie Hummingbirds.

Newport Folk famously provided the stage when Bob Dylan performed with an electric guitar in public for the first time in 1965. After his electric performance, Wein, who sensed some frustration among the audience, asked Dylan to go back on stage and play some acoustic selections.

Wein later expanded his operation, Festival Productions with other events, including the KOOL Jazz Festivals, which featured jazz, R&B and soul artists on the same stages in large arenas across the country, including Oakland, Atlanta, Hampton, VA, Cincinnati, San Diego, Houston and Kansas City.

In 1972, Wein transplanted the Newport Jazz Festival to New York, staging the event in multiple venues around the city, including Yankee Stadium and Radio City Music Hall. He also expanded to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in 1977 but ultimately retuned to Newport in 1981.

Wein also co-founded the founded the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which he later turned over to his protégé Quint Davis.

In addition to his work as a festival impresario, Wein was a noted philanthropist and he and his wife Joyce, 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 a host of artists including Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Norman Lewis, Beauford Delaney and Jacob Lawrence.

The Joyce and George Wein Foundation also supports multiple arts organizations, including The Studio Museum in Harlem, which administers the annual $50,000 Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize, which honors African-American artists who demonstrate great innovation, promise and creativity.

In 2015, Wein was presented with a Grammy Honorary Trustee Award but his professional accolades also include being named an NEA Jazz Master (Jazz Advocate) in 2005, and in 2012, he received the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) Award of Merit for Achievement in Performing Arts for an individual.

As a pianist, he recorded over 10 records, including Wein, Women and Song, George Wein and the Newport All-Stars, and Swing That Music. He made his last public performance in 2019 in Newport at a pre-festival concert and he presented his band, the Newport All-Stars, at the 2010 and 2012 jazz festivals.

Wein was married for more than 50 years to Joyce Alexander, an African-American biochemist, who preceded him in death. He 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 friend, Dr. Glory Van Scott of New York City.

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