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Profile: Jazz Festival Founder George Wein

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Profile: Jazz Festival Founder George Wein © Brad Barket / Getty Images
George Wein began his career in jazz as a pianist and bandleader in Boston, Massachusetts. While studying at Boston University on the GI Bill, he played several nights a week. In 1950, with all of his savings, he opened a small jazz club in a hotel called Storyville.

Wein’s reputation grew, and four years later, he founded the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. The large, outdoor jazz festival was the first of its kind, and became an annual event. The concept caught on, and soon Wein was producing festivals all over the world.

Newport and Beyond:

As a club owner and performer, Wein got to know virtually all of the great jazz musicians, as well as the jazz audience. This contributed to his success at bringing together the right people at the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. With the help of investors Elaine and Louis Lorillard, Wein attracted a crowd to hear performances by Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and many others.

With the Newport Jazz Festival, Wein founded not only a music festival, but also a system for bringing jazz to large audiences that wouldn’t normally hear it. The system hinges on two things: corporate sponsorship, and programming that combines jazz genres. In 1960, Wein created Festival Productions, a company devoted to setting up festivals.

The first two sponsors for Wein’s festivals were Schlitz beer and Kool Cigarettes, but JVC, the audio and video electronics company has become the largest sponsor in recent decades, supporting some of the largest festivals around the world, including the Newport Jazz Festival, and New York City’s annual JVC Jazz Festival.

Jazz festival audiences are exposed to not only forms of traditional jazz, but avant-garde acts that tend to be the least commercially successful, as well as crossover acts that tend to be the most commercially successful. Wein believes this system is essential to the perpetuation of the music, which is increasingly challenging as a result of its rapid changes of direction. Since 1954, virtually every notable jazz musician ever has played at least one of Wein’s festivals.

In 2007, Wein sold Festival Productions to Shore Line Media, and the company became known as Festival Network. Since the economic tumult that began in late 2008, the company found itself in financial distress, and backed out of the Newport Jazz Festival, in what would be the festival’s 55th straight year. George Wein, at age 83, stepped in to take over control of the festival.

From small time club owner to one of the most important people in jazz history, George Wein has devoted his life to the promotion and support of jazz in all of its forms, from swing, to bebop, to free jazz, and everything since. He has won dozens of honors for his work, and in 2005 the National Endowment for the Arts named him a “Jazz Master.” His autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, published in 2004, is considered one of the best books about jazz in recent years.
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