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George Wein and his Newport Jazz Festival, which opens on Friday and runs through Sunday, have gone through many significant changes over the past several years. Wein sold the festival in 2007, retook control of it two years later when the buyer ran into financial difficulties, and in 2011 reconstituted it as a nonprofit. Late last year yet another important transition was put in motion, when the Newport Festivals Foundation’s board of directors approached the 90-year-old Wein about establishing a succession plan.

“The board says, ‘You have to have a successor, George. You just can’t stay there. Eventually you’re going to go,’” Wein recalled in a phone interview last week. This spring he announced that Christian McBride, a bassist, bandleader, radio personality, and budding impresario, will take charge as artistic director beginning with next summer’s festival, with Danny Melnick, Wein’s longtime associate producer, promoted to producer.


The festival has thrived since going nonprofit, according to Wein, its audience growing steadily over the past four years from 11,000 in 2012 to the close to 20,000 he anticipates this weekend.

“Being nonprofit has been a wonderful asset,” he said. “We’ve got a board of directors that contributes with the galas and our different events. We’re building up an endowment, and we will achieve my dream of keeping this alive for 20 years or more after I’m gone.”

Q. You’ve hired Christian McBride as artistic director; Danny Melnick has been promoted to producer, and Jay Sweet is going to be the executive producer. How do you envision them dividing up their duties?

A. Well, Jay is going to be the administrator, the head of the overall Newport Festivals Foundation, in addition to being artistic producer of the folk festival. Christian will be the artistic director of the jazz festival. He will choose the artists and determine the image and the structure of the festival. Danny will buy the talent. He will be the one to deal with the agents. He will be in charge of production on the field. As artistic director, Christian will have the last say on what artists are playing at the festival.


Q. What drew you to Christian as artistic director?

A. I thought that it would be great to have a musician who is as broad in his thinking as Christian. I’ve known Christian for years. His personality is perfect for what we’re asking of him. It’s a question if he had the time to work with us, because he’s a very busy musician. I think it will help our image at Newport if Christian can handle it — because that’s always the question. Can he be an artistic director of such a huge event, with 45 different artists each year? I think he can — I won’t say without any trouble, but I think he can do it with a degree of ease. My nose will be in there the first year. I’m going to sit back as much as I can, but you know me: If I’m healthy, I’ll be there. But I am going to try to phase myself out as much as possible.

Q. Beginning with the 50th anniversary festival in 2004, you’ve made a point of keeping the jazz festival tightly focused on jazz. What’s your take on why that’s been successful?

A. Well, you don’t know. The big figure in jazz now is Kamasi Washington. We grabbed hold of him. I didn’t want to lose him. He was very busy, so we made sure he’d be in Newport by giving him Friday and Sunday. If he makes a big hit on Friday, which I think he will, then we’ll see whether people come back Sunday for him.


Norah Jones, for instance. . . Norah wanted to play both the folk and jazz festival, but she has a totally different group behind her on the jazz festival. She wouldn’t do the jazz festival if Brian Blade, Chick [Corea]’s drummer, wasn’t available to play for her. She definitely wants to be accepted on the jazz level. That’s fascinating, because we’re [expecting to] sell out Saturday because of Norah. That’s the first time we’ve sold out in years.

The Friday night we’ll sell over 3,000 tickets for Chick Corea and Gregory Porter. I mean, everything is going well. Friday afternoon is a lot of pure jazz, from Tyshawn Sorey and then Eric Revis has Ken Vandermark with him, to bringing back Jimmy Heath, who hasn’t played for us in years, and bringing in Donny McCaslin. Then mixing in Kamasi Washington, Kneebody — young players that are totally dedicated to music, but giving it a little different approach.

Q. That third day of Friday shows is something you added in 2014. It largely seems to showcase artists who aren’t yet big names.

A. It’s partly that. We want them to bring in as many musicians as possible. Adding an extra day did that, but it also allowed us to apply for grants from the Doris Duke Foundation and the Rhode Island Foundation. We’re commissioning artists. It’s not on Friday, but bringing Nels Cline — we’re presenting a new major work with 15 different musicians. Nels Cline wrote me the most beautiful note of what it means to him to be at Newport. I saved that note.


Q. You oversaw lining up this year’s artists. How do you keep up with that whole range of younger talents so different in the types of music they make?

A. I have young people that work with me, but I get out. Kneebody was playing down on Bleecker Street; I went down to hear them. Tyshawn Sorey was playing at a function for Columbia; I went up to hear him. Not only did I hear him, I heard his piano player, Cory Smythe. I said, “this piano player is fantastic.” I put him on the Storyville stage schedule, to give him a solo spot in addition to playing with Tyshawn’s trio. I haven’t had a chance to hear Kamasi Washington, but there’s so much TV on him. And records — I sit and listen on computer. My mind is open to as much as it’s possible to absorb.

Q. We’ve focused on the present and future. Let’s wrap up with one about the past. Do you have a memory or two that stand out from your many years of Newport Jazz Festivals?


A. If you ask me to pick a moment, I think the one that moved me the most — besides the Ellington and Miles Davis historical things — was Mahalia Jackson, when we introduced gospel music at the festival. That was something that was new at the time, and it really moved me. It affected my love of music.


At Fort Adams State Park and International Tennis Hall of Fame, Newport, R.I. July 29-31. Times, prices vary. 800-745-3000, www.newportjazzfest.org

Bill Beuttler can be reached at bill@billbeuttler.com.