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George Wein, legendary music producer and founder of Newport festivals, dies at 95

Mr. Wein, in 2009, playing with a jazz band in New Orleans.
Mr. Wein, in 2009, playing with a jazz band in New Orleans.Associated Press

George Wein, the founder of the Newport jazz and folk festivals and for decades jazz’s leading impresario, died Monday at his apartment in New York City, according to the Associated Press. He was 95.

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

Mr. Wein, who grew up in Newton, had one of the most eclectic careers in jazz history. In addition to being a festival promoter, he at various times ran two Boston nightclubs, owned a record label, managed acts, promoted tours, lectured at Boston University, wrote a music column for The Boston Herald-Traveler, and recorded and performed as a pianist.

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In his autobiography, “Music Is My Mistress,” Duke Ellington wrote that Mr. Wein (pronounced WEEN) “has made a tremendous contribution to the welfare of all of us who fight under the banner of jazz. Personally, he is one of the good guys, and no matter how successful he is in business, he still likes to sit down at the piano and open up his left hand.”

On one memorable occasion in 1952, Mr. Wein’s dual roles as musician and club owner resulted in an employee firing him. Mr. Wein was accompanying the legendary drummer Jo Jones at his club Storyville.

“George, you gotta make your mind up whether you wanna run a nightclub or play piano,” Jones told him. “I’m sorry, man, but I just can’t use you.”

Mr. Wein took his dismissal with uncharacteristic deference. “Jo was absolutely right,” he later said. “I was lousing him up good.”

With his wife, Joyce, Mr. Wein gave $1 million to Boston University to launch the George and Joyce Wein Chair in African American Studies.
With his wife, Joyce, Mr. Wein gave $1 million to Boston University to launch the George and Joyce Wein Chair in African American Studies. WEIN FAMILY/Associated Press

The critic Whitney Balliett once described Mr. Wein’s playing as “more than middling,” and he took pride in his musical career. He concluded his 2003 autobiography, “Myself Among Others,” with a discography of 40 titles and noted that “the thing that has given me the most gratification in my life” was earning acceptance on the bandstand from such jazz greats as the saxophonists Lester Young and Sidney Bechet.

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It was as a promoter rather than performer that Mr. Wein earned his considerable place in the annals of jazz. He “has expanded the audience for jazz more than any other promoter in the music’s history,” the critic Nat Hentoff wrote in 2001.

“People say to me, you’re a businessman,” Mr. Wein said in a 2018 Globe interview. “I say I know how to add and subtract.”

Mr. Wein’s longtime firm, Festival Productions (he sold it in 2007), organized such notable musical events as the Newport Folk Festival, the JVC Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Playboy Jazz Festival. For many years, Mr. Wein produced The Boston Globe Jazz Festival. In 2009, Mr. Wein started another firm, New Festival Productions.

It all began with the first Newport Jazz Festival, in 1954.

Inspired by the example of the Tanglewood Festival, Mr. Wein took jazz out of clubs and concert halls and put it in the midst of high society — initially, at the Newport Casino, then outdoors. The first US jazz festival, it “opened a new era in jazz presentation,” Down Beat magazine declared, and gave the music renewed popularity and increased respectability.

In a 1972 New Yorker profile, Mr. Wein described putting together a music festival as “an endless series of little headaches, a parade of aspirins.”

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Mr. Wein had only two peers as behind-the-scenes jazz eminence: the record producer and talent scout John Hammond and the promoter and record-label owner Norman Granz. Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic tours were the closest thing to a predecessor to the Newport Festival and its many offspring. But JatP had neither the duration nor impact of Mr. Wein’s festivals. Nor did it inspire such legendary events as Ellington’s performance of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” in 1956, which Ellington credited with resuscitating his career; Bob Dylan’s going “electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; or the 1978 White House Jazz Festival, where President Jimmy Carter joined Dizzy Gillespie to sing the chorus on “Salt Peanuts.”

George Theodore Wein was born on Oct. 3, 1925, in Lynn, the second of two sons of Barnet M. Wein, a physician, and Ruth (Ginsburg) Wein. The family moved to Brookline when Mr. Wein was 2, and Newton when he was 4. He began studying classical piano at 8 with Margaret Chaloff, the mother of Serge Chaloff, the noted baritone saxophonist.

A growing interest in jazz led Mr. Wein to form a big band when he was 15. “I knew the limits of my musical talents,” he said in a 1982 Washington Post interview. “But I found that I had a tremendous mind for organizing; that was the natural thing for me to do.”

Mr. Wein was drafted in 1943. An Army engineer, he briefly served in Europe at the end of the war. Mr. Wein earned his bachelor’s degree at Boston University, but jazz remained his first love. He formed a combo with the clarinetist Edmond Hall and, in his first stab at promotion, arranged for the band to give a concert at Jordan Hall.

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He was a BU student when he met Joyce Alexander, the jazz columnist for the Simmons College student newspaper, backstage at a concert in 1947. They married in 1959.

A biochemist at places such as Massachusetts General Hospital, she was a founder of the New York Coalition of 100 Black Women, and eventually left science to work with her husband on the music festivals.

“We could have been put in jail in 25 states when we got married, but in Boston we never had a problem,” Mr. Wein said in a Globe interview of their interracial marriage when she died in 2005.

The couple donated $1 million to BU in 2002 to endow the George and Joyce Wein chair in African American Studies.

In 1950, Mr. Wein opened Storyville, offering contemporary jazz, in the Copley Square Hotel. Later he opened Mahogany Hall there, specializing in traditional jazz. (For two years, Storyville moved to the Hotel Buckminster, in Kenmore Square, but later returned to the Copley Square.)

Mr. Wein’s mother helped bankroll the nightclubs. He needed all the financial support he could get. “I never made any money to keep in those ten years,” he recalled in the New Yorker profile, “but I learned just about everything I know.”

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The most important thing Mr. Wein learned was that he had found his calling. When Louis Armstrong made an impromptu appearance at Storyville shortly after it opened, the event “forever changed my life,” Mr. Wein wrote in “Myself Among Others.” “I knew that I had to be a part of his world.”

A wealthy couple, Louis and Elaine Lorillard, had sponsored a New York Philharmonic concert in Newport in 1953, which had failed financially. They hired Mr. Wein to put on two evenings of jazz. When 13,000 fans turned out, and a tradition was born. It expanded in 1959, with the first Newport Folk Festival.

Mr. Wein met with a setback in 1960, when a group of young fans rioted. He resumed producing the festival in 1962. Another riot, in 1971, led to a further hiatus, this one lasting 10 years.

Mr. Wein, in 1965, outside his offices in Newport.
Mr. Wein, in 1965, outside his offices in Newport.AP File photo

The morning after the riot, Mr. Wein’s father said, “What happened here last night is making national and international news. You have to take advantage of this.” Mr. Wein announced the 1972 “Newport” festival would be held in New York. Under various names and sponsorship, it quickly became a musical institution there each summer.

“It’s just by accident that I became a jazz producer,” Mr. Wein wrote in his autobiography. “In the long run, it’s the music. I call that the raison d’etre. That’s why I’m here.”

A complete list of survivors and information about a memorial service was not immediately available.


George and Joyce Wein
George and Joyce Wein



Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.