George Wein created the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 at the request of wealthy patrons of his Boston jazz club. But the way Wein saw it, the festival wasn’t just casual weekend entertainment for residents of the tony Rhode Island community — it was a paradise for like-minded music lovers, a venue for mingling soundtracked by the most inventive music of the day.
“I always say, I love jazz from ‘J’ to ‘Z,'” he said in the 2015 interview. His love of the genre and its musicians would define his life.
“If you’ve been to a music festival you’ve experienced the influence of George Wein,” said Jay Sweet, executive producer of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, in a statement to CNN.
A life defined by jazz
By the time he was in middle school, young Wein had formed a jazz band that performed in seedy bars around Massachusetts. He and his fellow young musicians, most of them not old enough to drink in the establishments where they played, were paid measly sums for their performances, he said in the Hamilton College interview. The experiences he had as a teen pianist were formative, though, even if their performances occasionally soundtracked bar brawls.
In 1944, Wein joined the US Army as a combat engineer, and he played piano to escape punishment — the officers’ dances always needed a pianist, he said.
“Playing the piano had its plusses,” he said in the Hamilton College interview.
Playing music in the military was a “saving grace” for Wein, but when World War II ended and he’d graduated from Boston University, he realized playing music professionally wouldn’t be fulfilling. He’d known so many musicians who’d mastered their craft but whose lives fell apart offstage, he said.
“I think in seeing them drink in their rooms at night, you know, and so lonely and so out of it, I said, ‘I’m not sure that this is the life I really want, even though I love playing and I love the music,'” he said in the Hamilton College interview.
Fully abandoning jazz was never an option, though, so in 1950, with the limited funds he’d saved from attending college through the GI Bill, Wein opened the Storyville jazz club in Boston. He booked artists whose music he enjoyed — and many of those artists became the genre’s greatest stars.
Storyville barely broke even every week, but it attracted an esteemed clientele, including Elaine Lorillard. The wealthy socialite approached Wein about bringing jazz to her upscale neighborhood of Newport, Rhode Island. Wein didn’t know much about organizing concerts that could seat a city’s worth of guests rather than a few dozen club patrons, but he agreed.
Future editions of the jazz festival included performances from Miles Davis, Duke Ellington — who recorded a live album at the festival in 1956 — and Billie Holiday, among many others. Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald would also release an album together, recorded live at the 1957 festival, before Holiday’s death. Later acts included Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Chick Corea.
Sweet, the executive producer of the Newport festivals, said Wein was the embodiment of an “impresario.”
“He was an icon, a maverick, an artist, an activist, a philanthropist, a mentor, an inspiration and most importantly my friend,” Sweet said. “He left an unrivaled legacy and it’s now our job to keep growing it.”
“Jazz has been my entire life,” he said in the 2013 statement. “It means everything. I learned so much from jazz that it’s affected me from that day right up until today — that’s a long time to be influenced by a great music.”