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George Wein, whose Newport Jazz Festival inspired modern music festivals, dies at 95

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By Scottie Andrew, CNN

Performances at the very first Newport Jazz Festival, the “grandaddy of all music festivals,” took place outside because they had to — there was no venue large enough to hold the thousands of fans clamoring to hear from future legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

George Wein created the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 at the request of wealthy patrons of his Boston jazz club. But the way Wein saw it, the festival wasn’t just casual weekend entertainment for residents of the tony Rhode Island community — it was a paradise for like-minded music lovers, a venue for mingling soundtracked by the most inventive music of the day.

“Outdoors created that feeling,” he said in a 2015 interview. “And festivals, to this day, even though they’re not jazz festivals — that’s the attraction. They’re a meeting place for people.”

Festivals from Woodstock to Coachella have followed the example set by Wein’s jazz festival. Before headliners included rap stars and rock acts, though, Wein recruited the likes of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. He oversaw the festival — and several others — for decades, refusing to slow down until his 90s.

“I always say, I love jazz from ‘J’ to ‘Z,'” he said in the 2015 interview. His love of the genre and its musicians would define his life.

Wein, who received an honorary Grammy in 2015 for pioneering the concept of music festivals, died this week, family spokesperson Carolyn McNair confirmed. He was 95.

“If you’ve been to a music festival you’ve experienced the influence of George Wein,” said Jay Sweet, executive producer of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, in a statement to CNN.

A life defined by jazz

Wein’s musical career started out when he was a tot in the 1930s, singing standards on the radio while his mother accompanied him on piano. He trained in classical piano as a boy, which he liked well enough until his older brother brought home a Louis Armstrong record. His immediate affinity for those early jazz records set the course of his life, he told Hamilton College in a 2001 interview for its jazz archives.

By the time he was in middle school, young Wein had formed a jazz band that performed in seedy bars around Massachusetts. He and his fellow young musicians, most of them not old enough to drink in the establishments where they played, were paid measly sums for their performances, he said in the Hamilton College interview. The experiences he had as a teen pianist were formative, though, even if their performances occasionally soundtracked bar brawls.

In 1944, Wein joined the US Army as a combat engineer, and he played piano to escape punishment — the officers’ dances always needed a pianist, he said.

“Playing the piano had its plusses,” he said in the Hamilton College interview.

Playing music in the military was a “saving grace” for Wein, but when World War II ended and he’d graduated from Boston University, he realized playing music professionally wouldn’t be fulfilling. He’d known so many musicians who’d mastered their craft but whose lives fell apart offstage, he said.

“I think in seeing them drink in their rooms at night, you know, and so lonely and so out of it, I said, ‘I’m not sure that this is the life I really want, even though I love playing and I love the music,'” he said in the Hamilton College interview.

Fully abandoning jazz was never an option, though, so in 1950, with the limited funds he’d saved from attending college through the GI Bill, Wein opened the Storyville jazz club in Boston. He booked artists whose music he enjoyed — and many of those artists became the genre’s greatest stars.

“I was interested in playing as many of the jazz greats as possible,” he said in a 2008 interview with journalist Marc Myers of the blog JazzWax. “I didn’t look at the box office results, really.”

Storyville barely broke even every week, but it attracted an esteemed clientele, including Elaine Lorillard. The wealthy socialite approached Wein about bringing jazz to her upscale neighborhood of Newport, Rhode Island. Wein didn’t know much about organizing concerts that could seat a city’s worth of guests rather than a few dozen club patrons, but he agreed.

“I saw it as an opportunity to promote jazz on a large scale and expose people of all ages to this great music,” he told JazzWax in 2008. “For the first time, people who didn’t go to clubs or couldn’t get in because they were too young now could see and hear the music and musicians live, outside, in a relaxed, laid-back setting.”

Wein said he borrowed ideas “from the medieval days of festivals,” but his first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 became the blueprint for future music festivals, with its outdoor setting, its range of musicians and annual summertime staging.

Future editions of the jazz festival included performances from Miles Davis, Duke Ellington — who recorded a live album at the festival in 1956 — and Billie Holiday, among many others. Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald would also release an album together, recorded live at the 1957 festival, before Holiday’s death. Later acts included Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Chick Corea.

In 1959 — the same year he married the Black biochemist Joyce Alexander — Wein launched the Newport Folk Festival, which has hosted artists as disparate as Joan Baez, the Pixies and Dolly Parton. Though it’s since expanded to include country and indie rock artists, at the 1965 festival, Bob Dylan shocked devoted folksters when he started wailing on an electric guitar. As Wein wrote in his 2004 autobiography, the moment ushered in a new era of the genre: “Rock and roll was no longer taboo; if Dylan could cross that line, so could [folk fans].”

Over the decades that followed, Wein helped create several other music festivals, like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Essence Music Festival, through his company Festival Productions. And though he eventually handed over the reins of the Newport Jazz Festival to younger organizers, he remained instrumental in festival operations. His successor as artistic director, Christian McBride, called him the “guiding light for every person who runs a major festival.”

Sweet, the executive producer of the Newport festivals, said Wein was the embodiment of an “impresario.”

“He was an icon, a maverick, an artist, an activist, a philanthropist, a mentor, an inspiration and most importantly my friend,” Sweet said. “He left an unrivaled legacy and it’s now our job to keep growing it.”

Wein hardly slowed down over the years. When Joyce died in 2005, Wein established a prize in her name, the Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize, which awards $50,000 to innovative Black artists through the Studio Museum Harlem. In 2013, at age 88, he performed a concert at Lincoln Center in New York with a cast of “Newport All-Stars.” In a statement ahead of the performance, Wein declared that “jazz is life!” — a fitting sentiment for a man who devoted almost all of his life to the genre.

“Jazz has been my entire life,” he said in the 2013 statement. “It means everything. I learned so much from jazz that it’s affected me from that day right up until today — that’s a long time to be influenced by a great music.”

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