George Wein, who went down in American music history as the “father of festivals”, has died. In 1954 he organized the first Newport Jazz Festival in that seaside resort on the Rhode Island coast that had once been the summer residence of the money nobility and that of the presidents during the tenure of Eisenhower and Kennedy. The elegant ambience with the villas and the marina gave jazz an aura of high culture for the first time.
Like most jazz fans, wine had a missionary streak, which is why, after years as the operator of a small club in Boston, it was important for him to reach a much larger audience with a festival. 7000 people found space on the lawn in front of the Newport Casino tennis and sports club. The film “Jazz on a Summer Evening” by the fashion photographer Bert Stern set a monument for the fifth edition of the festival from 1958 in film history. He also showed Wein’s musical horizon quite well. In addition to stars such as Anita O’Day, Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong, modern jazz drivers of the time such as Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan and Chico Hamilton as well as the rock’n’roll pioneer Chuck Berry also performed. The Newport Jazz Festival was not the first, but the first successful open-air festival and is considered to be the forerunner of all major open-air concerts from Woodstock to Glastonbury to Coachella.
No organizer had such a good rapport with the musicians as he did
Over the years, the festival became an event empire. Wein founded the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans, the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, helped establish the Berlin Jazz Days in 1964. And he kept up with the times. In 1959, Wein hosted the first Newport Folk Festival. Many protagonists of the return to the roots of American music had their first appearances there in front of a really large audience, such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. The festival became legendary when Dylan performed there for the first time with an electric guitar in 1965, to the horror of the purists.
With success came the pressure. In 1971 Wein moved the jazz festival to New York. He was the first organizer to run festivals on behalf of large companies. His festival for the Japanese electronics company JVC had branches in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Paris, Warsaw and Tokyo. In Munich he started the Munich Jazz Festival together with the cultural department and the “Loft” operator Karlheinz Hein, which brought superstars such as Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea and Dave Brubeck to the Olympiahalle in 1979 and 1980. No organizer had such a good rapport with the musicians as he did, which was also due to the fact that he was a very good pianist himself, who continued with his old age Newport All-Stars played very relaxed swing.
In 2019 he performed for the last time at the Newport Jazz Festival, which has long been run by others. He died on Monday in his Manhattan apartment. He was 95 years old.