One night in 1954, Elaine and Louis Lorillard walked into George Wein’s Storyville jazz club in Boston. The wealthy jazz aficionados from Newport, R.I., wanted his help.
“They wanted to do something to heighten the summer in Newport. They asked me what ideas I might have,” said Wein, 94, in a recent phone interview. “We came up with the idea of the jazz festival. They gave me the money and the background to go ahead and produce it.”
The rest, as they say, is music history.
The first Newport Jazz Fest in 1954 was a smashing success.
Wein went on to found the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970 and was honored in 2015 with a Grammy Trustees Award for his festival-production work.
This year, the impresario who virtually invented the music festival is taking his creation virtual, in a series of events called “Newport Jazz Revival.” The fun includes archived sets via WBGO.org or NewportJazz.org, a virtual gala for donors Aug. 8 featuring Christian McBride, Wynton Marsalis, Diana Krall, and Wein as MC. A free finale, called “Jazz Together,” will stream Aug. 9 via www.facebook.com/NewportJazzFest. We reached the jazz man this week at his home in New York.
Q. Looking back, what are highlights that stand out as iconic Jazz Fest moments?
A. There are so many: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter — the history of jazz has appeared at Newport. Many festivals come from the little seed we planted in Newport in 1954.
Q. Tell us a little about yourself.
A. I was born in Boston. Went to Newton High, went to Boston University after the war. I was in the Army ’44, ’45, and ’46. I didn’t see any action, thank God. I was there when the war ended in Germany. I was in Europe when we dropped the atomic bomb. I didn’t realize what it meant except I knew I was going home. I was at Boston University from ’46 to ’50. I started Storyville in 1950 when I graduated.
Q. Why did you want to start a jazz club?
A. Jazz became a part of my life when I was 13 years old. I played classical piano and I wanted to play popular music. I was listening to Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey. I started a band at 13.
Q. In 1959 you started Newport Folk Fest with Pete Seeger. Was that because of the success of the Jazz Fest?
A. Storyville had presented some folk artists like Odetta, Josh White, and Pete Seeger. The response was so enormous, I said, “We can do a folk fest.” The two festivals together, I’m really proud of both of them.
Q. Who were some of your jazz heroes?
A. I’m a pianist, so when I hear Herbie Hancock, Michel Camilo, Jason Moran — I can spend my time listening to music. I have a hearing problem. I hear live jazz better.
Q. Do you still play piano?
A. I performed last year at Bridgefest, between the two fests. That was the first time I’d played in several years; I had to work very hard to do that. I haven’t played since. It’s too difficult for me.
Q. What’s the secret to creating a great festival?
A. You have to get an idea that’s a little unique. You can’t search for it, it has to just be there. I found good people to work with, and gave them autonomy. I created the possibility, and I say it’s your ballgame. You create the stage for them to perform on, and if you can do that, you’ve done something.
NEWPORT JAZZ REVIVAL
Through Aug. 9, www.newportjazz.org