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Music impresario George Wein, who spawned the Modern Music Festival when he helped launch the Newport Jazz and Newport Folk Festivals, has died at the age of 95.
According to a statement from his family, Wein passed away peacefully in his sleep early Monday morning.
Wein co-founded the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. Newport was the first and largest event of its kind in the United States, setting the standard for upcoming outdoor music festivals.
Jazz evening in America
Wein, who was a musician himself, lived a life that most jazz fans dream of. He knew the giants and innovators by their first names. At the very first Newport Jazz Festival, Wein hosted a reunion between saxophonist Lester Young and singer Billie Holiday. The two former collaborators had not spoken to each other for years. He told a private Newport hearing in 2003 that Young was hesitant behind the scenes.
“It’s one of the most poignant memories of my life,” Wein said. “Because there was this wonderful saxophonist – one of the great figures in the history of music – who stood there and didn’t go on stage. Billie sang about three choirs from the first song, and the next thing you know, he says, “Guess I’ll have to go upstairs and help the Lady.”
Their reunion was not recorded, but next year’s festival was. Wein booked Miles Davis to play at a time when the trumpeter was on the ropes.
The performance leap started Davis’ career. But NPR contributor and former New York Times Jazz critic Nate Chinen, editorial content director for member station WBGO, said Wein’s goal is far greater than helping individual artists.
“I know he was particularly passionate at first about gaining a kind of respect for jazz in a kind of mainstream culture,” says Chinen, who also co-wrote Wein’s memoir, Me among the others.
Chinen says Wein was proud to have helped make jazz the accepted American art form that it is now. But Wein’s relationship with the artists was just as important.
“He understood the mindset of musicians,” observes Chinen, “and he really cared about how musicians were doing. He wanted to support them as a promoter and producer and also just as a friend of the music.”
He was a musician, a child prodigy. And in his teens, he played jazz piano professionally around Boston. As an adult, he ran Storyville, one of the city’s clubs, and noticed the revival of folk music adopted by Boston students in the 1950s.
He hired Odetta and guitarist Josh White at his club. And the reception they received convinced him to start a folklore festival.
“Well, if I remember, that was pretty important to me,” Joan Baez says. At that time, Baez had a constant presence in the cafes around Harvard Square. But she says Newport was something else.
“I don’t think there was a place where there was a tent full of white Shaker singers, for example, and the next tent full of blind black blues singers from Mississippi, you know? ‘they all took for granted that they all made music. “
And Newport made history. In 1963, Baez introduced a young Bob Dylan to his larger national audience at the time. And just two years later, Dylan broke with folk purists and went electric – in Newport.
The popularity of Newport led Wein to start a production company. He brought his approach to New Orleans, where he spurred the city’s Jazz and Heritage Festival, and eventually exported his concept around the world.
In 2007, Wein sold his business and tried to enjoy semi-retirement. But two years later, the festivals he founded went bankrupt and at 82, Wein created a non-profit foundation to protect Newport’s future, as he told NPR in 2011.
“The only chance we have to keep the festival alive after I leave,” he said, “is to have a foundation and people who want to keep it alive.”
Speaking on Newport’s 50th anniversary in 2004, George Wein told the public radio show American routes there was a very fundamental reason for his success: “My real talent was to make things happen.
And he’s done it – for over half a century – for fans and musicians.