If George Wein had been a better pianist, there might never have been a Newport Jazz Festival.
Fortunately, Wein realized his true calling as a concert impresario. His groundbreaking open-air festival, which created a new respect for jazz as it dragged the art form out of small, smoke-filled clubs, celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer from Aug. 11-16.
“I like to use the expression that ‘jazz’ is no longer a dirty word,” Wein said.
In the unlikely setting of a Rhode Island resort known for high society airs and lavish Gilded Age mansions, Wein made jazz accessible to audiences in the thousands, creating a model that would be imitated worldwide. Today, Wein estimates there are more than a 1,000 jazz festivals around the world.
For Wein, a doctor’s son who upset his middle-class Jewish family when he decided on a musical career, it was all about legitimizing the music he loved. Newport helped pave the way for the music’s eventual inclusion at universities and cultural institutions.
“I was very much concerned with jazz being accepted as an art form ... because I knew that if jazz was respected ... it would help me earn the respect in my life that I wanted,” said Wein, 78, seated behind a cluttered desk in his wood-paneled office in a Manhattan brownstone.
Today, as CEO of Festival Productions Inc., Wein is producing more than 20 festivals this year, including the flagship JVC Jazz Festival in New York, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and a new JVC festival in Seoul, South Korea.
Prominently displayed in Wein’s office is a photo of Art Tatum, the jazz piano virtuoso known for his rapid-fire runs. It was after hearing Tatum that Wein, an aspiring Boston-area pianist, decided to focus on producing and opened his own club, Storyville.
“That’s why I’m a promoter,” said the portly Wein, speaking in a distinctive Boston accent, glasses perched atop his bald pate. “I heard Art Tatum at a young age and said, ‘Nobody could play piano like that.”’
Wein didn’t abandon the piano. His discography comprises some 40 albums, including recordings with his Newport All-Stars and such traditional jazzmen as clarinetist Pee Wee Russell and trumpeter Ruby Braff.
But his natural talent is as a producer. It’s taken all his skills to enable Newport to survive a half century and overcome such obstacles as racism, hostility from some townspeople, changing musical tastes, riots that shut the festival down and a decade of exile in New York.
“George Wein has enabled Newport to survive with just hard work and not giving up,” said 83-year-old pianist-composer Dave Brubeck, who has appeared at Newport more times than any other artist, starting in 1955. “It takes a lot of experience and knowledge to do this successfully, a lot can go wrong, and you have to be a fighter.
“The Newport festival was the beginning of a new way to present jazz,” said Brubeck, who will open the 50th anniversary festival. “I hope it keeps going forever.”
Pianist Marian McPartland, host of National Public Radio’s “Piano Jazz” series, attributes Newport’s longevity to Wein’s background as a musician.
“It’s nice that George was one of us ... he loves jazz and he can play it,” said the 84-year-old McPartland. “For him doing jazz was not a job but really a mission to bring jazz to as many people as possible.”
Newport never would have happened if Wein hadn’t been a risk-taker.
A little jazz to ease the boredom
One wintry night in 1953 at Storyville, a Newport socialite, Elaine Lorillard, complained to Wein that the summer scene was “terribly boring” and thought some jazz might liven things up. After her husband, tobacco heir Louis Lorillard, provided a $20,000 line of credit, Wein seized the opportunity to create the first U.S. jazz festival.
Although the jazz world was sharply divided between the traditional swing players and modern beboppers. Wein decided that Newport would showcase the full spectrum of jazz.
“I decided to present jazz from ‘J to Z’ as I called it,” said Wein. “That was a unique thing ... but I always felt that jazz was a family. It was all jazz even though my personal feelings came out of the swing era.”
On July 17-18, 1954, the First Annual American Jazz Festival drew 11,000 fans to the Newport Tennis Casino. The bandstand at center court was filled with jazz giants, including Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday.
For the performers, there was as much excitement backstage as onstage.
“Newport was a highlight of my career,” said 76-year-old saxophonist Lee Konitz, whose quartet performed on opening night. “It was really a big party .... people were letting their guards down and just enjoying being around each other.”
But what drew widespread media attention was the incongruity of jazz, with its humble African-American roots, being accepted in a bastion of American wealth and privilege. Hollywood got into the act with the 1956 musical “High Society”— the festival providing the backdrop for Louis Armstrong to jam with Bing Crosby in a Newport mansion.
“It was rewarding to be in a different situation than a smoky nightclub,” said Percy Heath, 81, the bassist of the Modern Jazz Quartet, who performed at the first two festivals. “The fact that it was in a snobbish area with those wealthy people and those homes gave that feeling of breaking new ground.”
Far-reaching impactNewport’s impact was soon felt beyond the United States. Starting in 1955, the Voice of American began taping festival concerts for broadcast. Soon festivals began to spring up throughout Europe. Wein founded the Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice in 1974, and was later inducted into the Legion of Honor for his contribution to French culture.
“George Wein has been a mentor for all of us,” said Carlo Pagnotta, founder and artistic director of the Umbria Jazz Festival, Italy’s biggest jazz event. “Newport opened the highway for jazz festivals all over the world.”
For Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, Newport’s legacy was reflected in the impact it had on the careers of individual musicians. Morgenstern recalls the excitement of discovering new stars: Jimmy Smith making a dramatic arrival in a hearse carrying his organ, or the blind Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing three saxophones simultaneously.
Duke Ellington, his career in the doldrums, declared he was “born again” at Newport with a memorable performance on July 7, 1956. Duke called an obscure tune “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” which climaxed in a ferocious, hard-blowing tenor sax solo by Paul Gonsalves that went on for 27 choruses, whipping the audience into a frenzy.
“If you were giving a list of the all-time great jazz performances, you certainly would have to include that one,” said McPartland, who was in the audience that night. “It was just so exciting. Duke egged Paul on to play more, play more ... just milking him for all he was worth.”
“Diminuendo” is among the festival highlights that Wein selected for the 27-track, 3-CD box set “Happy Birthday Newport: 50 Swinging Years” (Columbia/Legacy) that includes performances by Armstrong, Holiday, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and many others. A previously unissued track features Miles Davis’ comeback performance at the 1955 festival, playing “’Round About Midnight” in a jam session with the tune’s composer, Monk, on piano.
'Commercialism and credibility'As Newport producer, Wein learned to balance “commercialism and credibility” to help the festival survive. That meant booking the occasional non-jazz act, and as a result Newport’s influence spread throughout American popular music.
Newport helped cast a national spotlight on Ray Charles (1958) and Aretha Franklin (1962) early in their careers. Bluesman Muddy Waters created a major buzz when he appeared at the 1960 festival with his electrifying band from Chicago’s South Side, featuring James Cotton on harmonica and Otis Spann on piano.
Gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, who once considered jazz “devil music” and refused to perform at nightclubs, reached a new audience at Newport. Her stirring rendition of “Didn’t It Rain,” during which the rain stopped falling as she ushered in Sunday morning, provided the coda to the acclaimed documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” filmed at the 1958 festival.
Wein also played a major role in the folk revival when he created a spinoff Newport Folk Festival in 1959 that included performances by Pete Seeger, the Kingston Trio, Earl Scruggs, and an 18-year-old Joan Baez. The 1965 festival made history when Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar and was booed off the stage.
Wein had less success when he booked an all-star lineup of rock groups, including Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin and Sly and the Family Stone in 1969, which he describes as the “worst festival by far” in Newport’s history.
But he came back the next year to produce the Newport concert he describes as his “most enjoyable” — a 70th birthday tribute to Armstrong that included traditional New Orleans bands and an all-star trumpet salute. An ailing Armstrong summoned the strength to sing his theme song “When It’s Sleepytime Down South” and close with an encore of “Mack the Knife.”
The following year Armstrong was dead, and the Newport festival nearly died too.
Wein had already come back after a one-year suspension that followed a 1960 riot by thousands of college students outside the festival grounds. The 1971 festival was ordered shut down after thousands of gate-crashers broke down the fences during a performance by Dionne Warwick. The city council then voted against issuing future permits.
The New York yearsInstead of quitting, Wein took the advice of his father to turn the situation to his advantage and try to build something new. With the support of his wife, Joyce, to whom he has been married for 45 years, and staff including his long-time right-hand man and publicist Charlie Bourgeois, Wein came up with the bold idea of moving the festival to New York City.
The 1972 Newport Jazz Festival-New York opened with simultaneous concerts at Avery Fisher Hall and Carnegie Hall featuring Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz and the Modern Jazz Quartet, among others. There were midnight jam sessions at Radio City Music Hall and traditional New Orleans bands playing on the Staten Island Ferry.
Newport’s arrival not only revived the city’s moribund jazz scene, but also provided the impetus for a whole series of summer musical programs. Wein ended up creating a new model for an “urban festival” with events spread out among concert halls, clubs, parks, and other venues.
But Wein never lost the sentimental desire to return to his “roots” on Newport’s Aquidneck Island. While continuing the New York festival as his flagship event, Wein was warmly welcomed back to Newport in 1981.
The festival found a spectacular new site at Fort Adams State Park, where a stone-walled Civil War-era fort sits on a peninsula jutting out into Narragansett Bay. Although the festival, now known as the JVC Jazz Festival-Newport, R.I., became more of a regional than a national event, its ambience cannot be matched.
“There’s no way anything can go wrong there,” said Brubeck, who performed at the first festival at Fort Adams. “You have the people on the grass in front of the bandstand and then further out there are people floating around in their boats in the bay, and that’s very special.”
In 1988, the festival also began presenting programs at its original home at the Casino, where the traditional opening night concert has become one of the social events of the season. This year’s Casino concert will feature Harry Connick Jr. and his big band playing selections from their “Only You” CD with romantic pop standards from the ’50s and ’60s.
Still a special placeNewport also remains a special place for a new jazz generation. In 2003, the 21-year-old singer-pianist Peter Cincotti opened the festival at the Casino.
“I remember being very excited because it was one of my first performances at one of the legendary festivals,” said Cincotti. “It was not just a run-of-the-mill audience. The people were particularly warm and they understood the music.”
Wein began this year’s celebrations in January with a three-month Newport Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary Tour that covered 50-plus U.S. cities. Pianist Cedar Walton said the tour tried to bring “the spirit of Newport ... in a condensed version,” matching musicians of different styles and generations, to a wider audience.
As for the upcoming festival, Wein is determined to restore Newport to its past grandeur. More than 125 jazz musicians, including all those interviewed for this story, will be performing in August, but most have been asked not to bring their own groups so they can be mixed in unique all-star combos as in the past.
In an ironic twist, Wein is hosting a gala jazz benefit at Newport’s most opulent mansion, The Breakers, that is expected to raise $250,000 for The Preservation Society of Newport County, which once sought to run the festival out of town.
Unfortunately, most of the legendary jazz artists who created the Newport magic have passed, but their successors will be paying tribute to Dizzy, Duke, Mingus, Louis, Monk and others. Pianist McCoy Tyner, a member of John Coltrane’s famed quartet which played Newport in 1963, is putting together a “Remembering Coltrane” group consisting of son Ravi Coltrane and Michael Brecker on saxophones, drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride.
“I hope this festival is a success ... because I’ve really gone back to just pure jazz,” said Wein. “I want to create a salute to the past with the music of the future and the music of the individual. I want to reflect the glories of Newport, but also the fact that jazz is alive and still one of the most important musics in the world.”