The Festival Legend: George Wein – 64 Years Of Producing Festivals From Newport To New Orleans And Far Beyond
Josh WoolGeorge WeinCover photo for April 9, 2018 issue
George Wein and Jay Sweet vividly remember their first big fight. It occurred about a decade ago, and concerned a major act they were considering for the Newport Folk Festival.
Sweet was new to the concert business; Wein, of course, had created and overseen the Newport festivals since the 1950s. They won’t share details of the fight, or even whom it concerned, only its outcome.
“We were both right,” Wein says of the encounter, which occurred when he was in the process of reacquiring the Newport Jazz and Newport Folk Festivals from the company he had sold his Festival Productions to less than two years earlier. (They had quickly gone belly up).
“They didn’t know what they were doing,” Wein says. “Jay was with that company, but there was something about his dedication [to his point of view]. It stuck with me and I thought it was absolutely necessary that Jay stay with us. I saw leadership in him.”
Wein and Sweet have been a team ever since. They rebuilt the organization, creating the Newport Festival Foundation as a 501c3 in 2010 with Wein as chairman of the board and Sweet as executive producer of the two main festivals and, now entering its second edition, Bridgefest.
The bassist, bandleader and radio personality Christian McBride serves as artistic director for the Jazz Festival; an artist advisory board for Newport Folk helps shape the direction of the festival as well as encourage collaborations during and helps curate the multi-artist sets.
My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Sara Watkins, The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes are among the advisers.
David Salafia The Master And The ProtégéGeorge Wein (left) Jay Sweet at Fort Adams, the 1799 fortress and the longtime home of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals.
“When I got there, George gave me a lot of rope to hang myself,” Sweet says of his approach to Folk Festival, which he is over-seeing this year for the 10th time. “When I have an issue, I steal George and Pete Seeger’s blueprint for the folk festival, which I call the ‘Island of Misfit Toys.’ To me, anything that isn’t jazz can go on at this other festival.”
This year’s Folk Festival, named Pollstar Music Festival of the Year three times between 2011 and 2015, runs July 27-29; the Jazz Festival is Aug. 3-5 with the four-day Bridgefest in the middle. The folk fest has slowly rolled out its lineup – Gary Clark Jr., Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and The Lone Bellow are among the two dozen announced; another 40 or so names are still to come. Saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who turned 80 on March 15, will headline the Jazz Festival by performing all three days with three different bands. George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, Pat Metheny, Jose James and super groups led by Robert Glasper and Rene Rosnes with Cecile McLorin Salvant will be among the 50-plus acts performing.
Booking Lloyd was the easy part: His wife called Wein and he agreed to present the saxophonist’s three bands provided Newport got the exclusive and he wouldn’t recreate the musical triptych elsewhere. Not every booking goes as smoothly.
“Some artists George calls and they say, ‘Great. What day?’” says Sweet, a former journalist and music supervisor who comes from a folk/Americana/rock ‘n’ roll background. “Metheny took 96 emails with his manager. It’s a massive learning curve coming from folk. Interesting thing for me is I get to be a bad cop.
“Christian and George, these two brilliant jazz minds, can come up with something great but since I’m the one who has to sign the check, if we don’t like the deal I can say no. It allows for a counterbalance. In folk, I’m judge, jury and executioner.”
Those checks, Sweet notes, are for far smaller amounts than most artists receive for a gig.
“What a headliner gets for a festival like Coachella, well, that’s our entire budget for artists,” he says. “I just say, whatever your usual fee is, take a zero off the amount.”
Each of the festivals have 30,000 tickets to sell as capacity at Rhode Island’s Fort Adams State Park which can fit 10,000 per day; Bridgefest is a smaller-scale collection of film screenings, concerts and events in and around Newport.
They sold out last year’s Folk Festival in eight minutes prior to announcing a single act.
And while jazz is a tougher sell – Wein, sharp as a tack, recalls the many times he had to take out ads in the Sunday newspapers the week before the event to sell the last of the tickets – sales are 25 percent better than in 2015 when they put tickets on sale after the full lineup was announced.
Joe Giblin/AP, fileNewport Jazz FestivalFort Adams State Park on Narragansett Bay in Newport, R.I.
“What’s happening naturally is the jazz festival and folk fest are coming closer,” Wein notes. “It’s more like a week of music rather than two separate festivals. We find a Jon Batiste. He can play to a folk audience and a jazz audience. Rhiannon Giddens can play to both. Norah Jones.” Sweet offers Trombone Shorty as another example.
“It’s a 10-day music experience. Without trying to create that, we have built that. That’s what the future is with music.”
Wein, who will turn 93 before the first note sounds at this year’s festivals, grew up in Newton, Mass., aspiring to be a jazz pianist.
He left college after a year and enlisted in the Army during WWII, winding up stationed in New Jersey and close enough to Manhattan to catch the thriving club scene of the mid- to late 1940s.
Wein would bounce between Gotham and Boston, attending and graduating from Boston University, and working as a pianist, eventually opening his Storyville club in Boston in 1950. In 1958, he opened a summer version of the club on Cape Cod.
While the club was Wein’s central focus even as he struggled to turn a profit, he staged the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 with backing from a local socialite, Elaine Lorillard and her husband, Louis.
“I never had a motivation to do a jazz festival,” Wein says. “I thought, ‘Tanglewood has classical so why not jazz?’ I ended up putting Lennie Tristano and Eddie Condon on the same bill, which nobody would do back then. There was such a separation in jazz at that time, the beboppers and the traditionalists.
But to me there’s no difference – it’s all jazz.”
Between the two festivals (the first folk edition was in 1959, booked with the help of the late Pete Seeger), Wein ushered in new eras in music, gave the spotlight to emerging stars, revived the careers of forgotten blues musicians such as Son House and Mississippi John Hurt and created business practices – sponsorships, exclusive bookings/regional rights, the urban festival concept – that have become commonplace for festival producers.
Miles Davis revived his career in 1955 with his Newport set, securing a contract with Columbia Records that would yield some of the most famous – and best-selling – jazz LPs of the 20th century, Kind of Blue, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew among them. A year later, Duke Ellington gave the performance of a lifetime that was issued as Ellington at Newport in 1959.
Newport Folk 1965 may best be remembered for Bob Dylan going electric and being called “Judas” for moving forward from his acoustic past; consider, however, that year’s stellar Jazz Fest lineup, rarely gets any shine: Muddy Waters with Dizzy Gillespie as a guest; an afternoon of avant-garde musicians such as Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, and Paul Bley; and a Sunday show of Frank Sinatra, the Count Basie Orchestra, and Oscar Peterson Trio.
In the three days, Wein staged a VSOP superstar crossover concert, a sampling of the future of a genre and a finale of powerhouse names. Would any festival today take on that risk?
The 1969 Newport Jazz Festival, which Wein considers a failure as it sounded a death knell for jazz, set an attendance record for the three days – 85,000 people.
The program was equal parts jazz (Miles Davis, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Sun Ra, Bill Evans, etc.) and rock (Led Zeppelin, Sly and the Family Stone, Frank Zappa, Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, Ten Years After and others), a precursor to Woodstock that would take place six weeks later.
After the fallout from Woodstock, Altamont and the unaffiliated Newport ’69 in Northridge, Calif., the festival landscape was permanently altered.
Out of control crowds led to Newport Jazz shutting down for more than a decade starting in 1971.
“It was sociological,” Wein says. “It was impossible to hold a festival in suburban areas because kids would break the fences down saying music should be free.
“We had to go to an urban area, which means you can’t do something small. We went to New York [in 1972] and changed the whole structure, got Carnegie Hall to stay open an extra week for us.
“We did midnight concerts at Radio City Music Hall. We had 40-odd concerts over two weeks, at least two concerts a night, and it changed the whole concept of urban festivals.” It introduced the concept of the multi-venue festival.
Douglas Mason/Getty ImagesNewport Folk Festival 2017he Preservation Hall Jazz Band performs during the Newport Folk Festival 2017 at Fort Adams State Park on July 30, 2017 in Newport, Rhode Island
At the time, Wein was also promoting festivals throughout the East Coast and taking bands on the road as a traveling edition of Newport Jazz.
In 1970, the New Orleans Hotel Motel Association brought in Wein to create the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
“We made New Orleans aware of their own culture,” he notes without going into too much detail.
“It’s all in the book,” he often says, referring to his memoir written with Nate Chinen, “Myself Among Others: My Life in Music” that Da Capo published in 2004.
New York was in economic turmoil when Wein arrived.
His cachet was the Newport brand, which he found could, in turn, attract hefty sponsorship dollars from the likes of Kool cigarettes and the electronics company JVC.
His business thrived as the company names became synonymous with the concerts – Ben & Jerry’s earned brownie points for backing the folk festival from 1988 to 1999, which led to the ice cream company getting into festival promotion and partnerships with musicians.
While that money was crucial to Wein’s business, he’s proud to say today it wouldn’t fly.
“It’s a totally different approach,” he says. “I wouldn’t change the name Newport Folk Festival for a million dollars. We need sponsors but Jay has a real philosophy: Sponsors should be involved with what we’re doing and the community, not just putting big signs on the field.
“Sponsorship is important, and from the financial point of view, we like sponsors. But could we get along without them now? Yes. Very few festivals can say that. I hope we can always have some help.”
Sweet explains that the switch to a 501c3 has allowed the company to solicit donations from individuals, a move that has almost made up the amount sponsorships raised.
“The less sponsorship the better,” Sweet says. “The more people donate to our nonprofit, the less money we need from sponsors to fund our education component.”
Wein offers the caveat, “I am not saying we’re different from other people,” in noting “money is not the driving force for what we do. It’s the music and creating a great event.
“I told my board, ‘If you’re looking for us to make money, we won’t. You have to see that we stay alive, we’re building an endowment fund.’ The board understands that and it’s a good feeling.”
Wein’s Upper East Side apartment shows few signs of his life in music – it’s much more a showcase for art – but there is a single Grammy Award that sits in a place of honor.
He received it in 2015 to recognize his lifetime of creating significant festivals, which Grammy Awards host LL Cool J touted as being at the root of Coachella, Bonnaroo and other festivals.
“I didn’t realize it; I didn’t think we were making history,” Wein says.
“You’re doing what comes into your head. At my lowest, after the riots, I didn’t think, ‘What are the pieces to pick up?’ I thought, ‘What is the next step?’ After we finish one, I say, ‘Can we do it again next year?’”