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Rhode Island mourns George Wein, ‘a giant champion of jazz’

“He was putting artists of every color, race, gender, sexuality on a stage together,” said one member of the board of the Newport Festival Foundation. “He was helping liberate the American society.”

George Wein, founder of Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals.Handout

NEWPORT, R.I. — It’s said that after Bob Dylan went “electric” on stage in front of an audience for the first time, George Wein, co-founder of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, was waiting for him backstage, furious. Wein reportedly told him to go right back on stage and play an acoustic number.

“People forget that I was the one on stage that made him go back out. Everybody was saying the crowd was going to riot,” Mr. Wein told Vanity Fair in 2009. “There was this real division among young people: ones that had accepted the Beatles and others that had not accepted electric music. They wanted the purity of folk.”


Mr. Wein, who also co-founded the Newport Jazz Festival and transformed it into a world-renown event, died peacefully in his sleep on Monday at his apartment in New York City, his publicist confirmed. He was 95.

“We have all lost a giant champion of jazz, art, philanthropy, and equality. There will never be another like him,” said a statement from the Newport Folk Festival.

“He not only invented the idea of a modern-day music festival and made the careers of numerous music icons, but his investment in music appreciation is to me what makes him the biggest icon of them all,” Jay Sweet, executive producer of the Newport Folk Festival, said in a statement Monday. “George has an undeniable gift for making things happen. As a result, he has perhaps done more to preserve jazz than any other individual. He was my mentor and, more importantly, my friend and I will miss him dearly.”

Bill Vareika, the owner of William Vareika Fine Art in Newport, said he met Mr. Wein in the early 1980s when he was a janitor at the Newport Art Museum. But in 2010, he said he received a call from Mr. Wein to serve on the board of the Newport Festival Foundation.


“I told him, ‘I’m not really an expert in jazz or folk festivals. I mean, I went to Woodstock,’” said Vareika.

“We all know the role he played in American music in the last half of the 20th century. But I’ll go as far to say that he was also quietly altering the very core of American relationships with each other,” said Vareika. “He was putting artists of every color, race, gender, sexuality on a stage together... He was helping liberate the American society.”

“George was a treasure. What he did was bigger than music,” he said.

For seven decades, Mr. Wein was one of the most influential presenters of music around the world. In addition to his work promoting the music festivals, he ran two Boston nightclubs, owned a record label, managed acts, promoted tours, lectured at Boston University, and wrote a column about music for The Boston Herald-Traveler. He also performed as a pianist, and recorded more than a dozen albums.

In 1954, he met Newport socialites Louis and Elaine Lorillard, and agreed to create a festival to “do something with jazz” in the community.

“What was a festival to me? I had no rule book to go by. I knew it had to be something unique, that no jazz fan had ever been exposed to,” he wrote in his memoir. “I remembered my nights in New York City when I had started off in Greenwich Village at 8 p.m., gone to Harlem, and ended up seven hours later at 52nd Street. I could never get enough jazz. I heard Dixieland, big bands, swing, unique singers, and modern jazz. If this is what I loved, then that’s what should appeal to any jazz fan. I’m sure that’s what directed my concept of the Newport Jazz Festival.”


In 1956, Duke Ellington said he was “born at Newport” when he recorded one of his biggest hits, “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Miles Davis performed his comeback the year prior with his performance of “Round Midnight.”

In the beginning, Mr. Wein brought iconic figures to the seaside city, such as Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash, and James Taylor (who only performed for about 15 minutes in 1969 when Mr. Wein ended the festival early when it was announced that Apollo 11 landed on the Moon).

He received a Grammy Honorary Trustee Award in 2015, which was presented by rapper and actor LL Cool J. At the time, he said of Mr. Wein, “[he] defined what a music festival could be with the Newport Jazz Festival, Newport Folk Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. This is a great guy. More than anyone, George set the stage for what great festivals today look like; festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo… He made this possible.”

Just shy of his 90th birthday, he tapped Sweet to become executive producer and to oversee the organization with the board of directors. In 2017, he named bassist Christian McBride as artistic director of the Jazz Festival.


Bruce Gordon, who was previously president of Verizon Retail Markets when he met Mr. Wein nearly two decades ago, will now succeed him as chairman of the Newport Festivals Foundation.

“The mark of a great business leader is to be able to take an idea and build it into something memorable, something wonderful for the world to enjoy,” said Gordon. “It also takes someone very special like George to know that, while your mind is still sharp, you can handpick the people to carry on your legacy. To be able to live long enough to watch it flourish is an added blessing.”

Nick Pell, who grew up in Newport and now serves as treasurer of the Newport Festivals Foundation, said Mr. Wein was “still in the weeds of the details into his ‘90s.”

“To be that dialed in, at that age, after this may years, shows us all a lesson in life: when you have something you love that much, it keeps you engaged and focused,” said Pell, who is also the grandson of the late U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell. “The mission was still to continue cultivating new talent, to be a place where new music and artists were discovered, and it’s so at the core of what happens on stage... He was always banging the drum to do right by the artists.”

Rick Massimo, author of “I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival,” said he remembers Mr. Wein telling him in an interview that he started off as a piano player and quickly realized that there were musicians “much better than he was” and that it would not become his career. Still, he wanted to incorporate music into his life.


“I won’t be the only one to say that he pretty much invented the American, multi-day music festival that people are replicating today… whether they think they are or not,” said Massimo. “He did exactly what he wanted. I worked on that book for eight years. I interviewed dozens of people. He’s a giant in music, but also a good person.”

Massimo recalled a story that Mr. Wein told him that when he married his wife, the late Joyce Wein, who was Black, he “never wanted to be a rebel.”

Mr. Wein is quoted in Massimo’s book as saying, “I never thought I was doing anything different by marrying Joyce. I wanted the same kind of respect my father had as a doctor. I wasn’t going to live an outsider’s life; I was part of society. And to this day I still am. And that’s why I’ve lasted all these years, I think. I don’t compromise, but at the same time I don’t tell anyone else they’re wrong. They have to find out that they’re wrong.”

“And they’ll find out.”

Politicians, musicians, and Rhode Island luminaries shared their condolences online Monday evening.

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.