Wein's World: George Wein At 90

Oct 1, 2015
Originally published on November 17, 2015 3:09 pm

There's no one person responsible for creating music festivals — or for making them such a huge part of how we witness live performances today. But starting in 1954, one person developed a recipe for their secret sauce.

George Wein still goes to his signature event every year, checking out performances and greeting the artists. These days, he does it on a golf cart which drives him between stages — he's about to turn 90, after all — but he says he takes his job as producer very seriously.

"If I don't hear the music, I don't know what my festival is all about," Wein says. "So I have to hear the music."

Wein was already running a jazz club in Boston — and playing some piano himself — when he met a wealthy tobacco heiress named Elaine Lorillard. She spent her summers with New England's rich and famous in the seaside town of Newport, R.I. She thought jazz could entertain where the New York Philharmonic couldn't. So she and her husband laid out a line of credit, Wein booked some big names (Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday), and the Newport Jazz Festival was born.

Its success led to its return the next year, and the year after that. To Paul Gonsalves' 27 ecstatic choruses in "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue." To the Newport Folk Festival and Bob Dylan "going electric." To crowd riots which threatened and caused cancellations. To the Newport Jazz Festival's relocation to New York City. To its return to Rhode Island in the 1980s. And, in all that dedication, to the spread of outdoor music festivals worldwide.

George Wein could have shifted his focus and cashed in on larger, more lucrative rock-oriented festivals. But he's now operating his Newport Jazz Festival as a non-profit so it can continue long after he's gone — and so he can still run it the way he wants to.

"Look, I'm going to be 90 years old and I'm still doing what I love," Wein says. "I guess my survival philosophy is working."

In this radio episode of Jazz Night In America, hear more from the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival, including performances from Bria Skonberg, Scott Robinson and Tom Harrell. And, in this video short, watch a portrait of George Wein's career through the years.

Copyright 2015 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/series/347139849/jazz-night-in-america.