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Jazz impresario building legacy for Newport fests

While crews work to erect tents and stages for the upcoming Newport jazz and folk festivals, the festivals' creator and guardian angel continues to build something else: a legacy that he hopes will continue long after he's gone.
/ Source: The Associated Press

While crews work to erect tents and stages for the upcoming Newport jazz and folk festivals, the festivals' creator and guardian angel continues to build something else: a legacy that he hopes will continue long after he's gone.

New York jazz impresario George Wein, who started the festivals more than 50 years ago, took them nonprofit earlier this year to shield them from the financial ups and downs of corporate funding.

"I'm trying to project 20 years ahead," Wein, 85, told The Associated Press in a phone interview from his New York home. "I won't be here in 20 years. The only way I can see to perpetuate the festivals was to go nonprofit. We can't quit now. I say never quit. Once you quit, you're finished."

The folk festival returns to Newport July 30 and 31, with performances by Emmylou Harris, Decemberists and dozens of other acts. The Aug. 5-7 jazz festival will feature Dave Brubeck and Wynton Marsalis. Fort Adams State Park will host both events.

Nonprofit status will allow the board that oversees the events to accept tax-deductible contributions from music lovers and corporate sponsors. Several other music festivals are already nonprofit, including the Monterey and New Orleans jazz festivals.

"He's trying to keep this going," said Leon Jackson, who attended the second jazz festival in 1955 and most of them since. He's worked behind the scenes at many of the events, one of many local residents who pitch in to make things run smoothly. But Jackson said it will take more than a new tax status to ensure the festival's long-term survival — it will take someone with Wein's energy and vision.

"George promoted the first outdoor jazz festival in the nation, and he's kept it going ever since," he said. "I don't think anybody else could do that."

Over the years Wein's festivals have weathered financial upheaval, moves to other cities and even a riot in 1960 when the National Guard was summoned to deal with crowds of unruly fans gathering outside the festival gates. All the while Wein played at the jazz festival with his band of rotating musicians, the Newport All-Stars. The band continues to tour.

"The man is a dynamo," said Bruce Jackson, an English professor at the University of Buffalo who served on the board overseeing the Folk Festival in the 1960s. He is not related to Leon Jackson. "People would say occasionally that George was only in Newport for the money. I always knew that was absolute B.S. He was in it for the music."

The jazz festival traces its roots back to 1954. Wein was playing piano and running the Storyville jazz club in Boston when Newport socialite Elaine Lorillard asked him to organize a performance to entertain Newport's affluent summer social scene. The first festival featured Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and others.

Though it left Newport for New York for several years in the '70s, the jazz festival has featured household names like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Frank Sinatra. Wein even exported the Newport brand, establishing "Newport" festivals in Boston, Saratoga, N.Y., and even Japan.

The folk festival started in 1959 with performances from folk icon Pete Seeger and a then largely unknown Joan Baez. In 1965, Bob Dylan famously outraged some folk purists by trading in his acoustic guitar for an electric one. The festival skipped several years in the '70s but returned in 1985. Since then the festival has broadened to feature a greater variety of artists including the Allman Brothers, Jimmy Buffett and Arlo Guthrie.

Bruce Jackson, the former board member, recalls how in the early days, headliners like Dylan would be paid the same amount as unknown musicians — a flat fee of $50. At the end of the event, any extra profits would be given away. A musician who lost his guitar would be given cash for a new one. A struggling music festival in another part of the country would be given a little help.

"The thing I loved about Newport was that it was all about love," he said. "That sounds so corny now. But it was about people coming together to hear music and be together. George was the one who held it all together."

Wein sold the festivals in 2007 to a festival production company. He wouldn't disclose the sale price but said at the time it was "in the millions." But the company ran into financial trouble in 2009 and longtime sponsor JVC pulled out. Wein stepped in to produce the festivals once more.

Wein likens the festivals to children, and said he couldn't stand by and watch them fade into history.

Newport Mayor Stephen Waluk said Wein's dedication has paid off for the city. He recalls making record profits at his childhood lemonade stand on the weekends when the festival was in town.

"He wants to leave a legacy," Waluk said. "It's something I definitely support. The festivals wouldn't be the same without Newport, and I don't think Newport would be the same without the festivals."

Wein's Newport All-Stars often plays the festival, but not this year. There's too much else to do, Wein said.

"You don't want to push yourself too much," he said, before quickly adding, "though I may sit in without being announced."