Newport Folk Founder George Wein dies
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Newport Folk Founder George Wein dies

Monday, September 13, 2021 – George T. Wein, co-founder and creator of the Newport Folk Festival and Newport Jazz Festival died peacefully in his sleep today at 95.

The Newport Folk Festival was the place where Dylan went electric and more recently introduced many Americana and country acts to a wider audience.

When Wein received a Grammy Honorary Trustee Award in 2015, the awards show host, rap star/actor LL Cool J, said, "George Wein defined what a music festival could be with the Newport Jazz Festival, Newport Folk Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. This is a great guy. More than anyone, George set the stage for what great festivals today look like; festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo. He made this possible."

Newport Folk Executive Producer Jay Sweet said, "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. 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."

George Theodore Wein was born in Newton, Mass., on, Oct. 3, 1925. 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 started taking piano lessons at the age of eight. He was later introduced to Earl Hines' horn-like piano style and the die was cast for his life in jazz and music. Wein played in various jazz bands around Boston while still in Newton High School. After a year in college, he was drafted into the Army. He maintained that he got his greatest education and life lessons from negotiating with fellow soldiers of many races, ages and faiths. Following his honorable discharge from the Army, he returned to Boston University on the G.I. Bill and graduated from the School of Liberal Arts in 1950.

After college, 25-year old Wein opened his own jazz club, Storyville, in Boston, which featured world-renowned stars and emerging artists. He created a record label of the same name, recording some of the best in live music. But, he would undergo the biggest opportunity and challenge of his life in 1954, when he met Newport socialites, Louis and Elaine Lorillard, who asked him to create something to liven up summers in Newport. A fan of the classical music festival in Tanglewood, Wein began to formulate his plan.

He wrote in his memoir, "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. I remembered my nights in New York City when I had started off in Greenwich Village at 8 p.m., 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."

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 and Christian McBride all played the Jazz Festival.

In 1959, the same year Wein married Joyce Alexander, an African-American biochemist, he co-founded the Newport Folk Festival with folk artist Pete Seeger. They later hired producer Bob Jones and went on to present the best and brightest musicians of folk, blues and gospel, including Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary and the Dixie Hummingbirds.

Today artists have included Mavis Staples, Brandi Carlile, Jim James, Nathaniel Rateliff, Michael Kiwanuka, Dolly Parton, Rhiannon Giddens, The Decemberists, Jason Isbell, Alabama Shakes and the late John Prine.

In 1965, Dylan went electric. Wein, who took note of the intense displeasure of the audience, asked Dylan to go back on stage and play some acoustic selections. He did as requested, and the set became known as one of the defining moments in 20th Century music. After turning over the reigns of the Folk Festival to producer Sweet in 2009, Wein attended every event this year's event.

The decades from the 60s to the '90s saw Wein's operation, Festival Productions, expand. In 1970, he founded the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which he later turned over to his protege Quint Davis. 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's Newport Jazz Festival-New York, along with his afternoon concerts and workshops breathed new life into the Big Apple jazz scene.

In 2007, Wein sold his company to a group of young entrepreneurs, who within two years ran into financial trouble. To keep his legacy alive, Wein, then 81, reacquired the festival names and remained active with them until his death. In 2009, he aptly titled his flagship events George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival 55 and George Wein's Newport Folk Festival 50, funding both events with his own money and funds from a few friends. The following year, he established and was named Chairman of the non-profit Newport Festivals Foundation.

Charitable contributions can be made to Newport Festivals Foundation, the 501 (c)(3) non-profit corporation he established in 2010 to preserve the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals. Donations can be made at or by mail at Newport Festivals Foundation, PO Box 650, Essex, MA 01929.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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