George Wein, founder of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, and the Newport Folk Festival, died Monday, September 13, 2021 at the age of 95. Wein has long been regarded as a true visionary and pioneer of the modern festival.
Wein was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts and began playing piano professionally as a teenager. He continued throughout his time as an undergraduate at Boston University and, in 1950, opened a jazz club, “Storyville,” in Boston and launched the Storyville record label. These two moves launched him as a jazz entrepreneur at age 24. In 1954, he partnered with two Newport, Rhode Island residents, Louis and Elaine Lorillard, to organize what would become the first Newport Jazz Festival.
In the 1960s, Wein founded Festival Productions, Inc., and discussions began to swirl about starting a new jazz festival in New Orleans, the birthplace of the genre. But progress between Wein and the city stalled over Jim Crow-era segregation laws. It wasn’t until 1970 that Wein, along with the help of Quint Davis and Allison Miner, was able to launch what would become known as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival under their own, racially inclusive, terms.
In the early years, Wein knew that headlining artists would come and go, so the future of any festival would have to rely upon the promotion of New Orleans and Louisiana culture, beyond “just” jazz. The new festival launched with a robust format-- there was a daytime fair outside the Municipal Auditorium, plus concerts inside featuring both local and national acts. The outdoor portion had room for all the food and crafts and street culture that wouldn’t fit onstage. And it included dozens of additional musicians. From the beginning, the New Orleans festival was a lively gathering of musicians and groups from many genres and a deep celebration of Louisiana culture and heritage.
Over the course of his seventy year career, Wein produced hundreds of festivals around the world, including the JVC Jazz Festivals in New York, London, Nice, and Newport; the Verizon Music Festival in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and Tampa; the Aurex Festivals in Japan; the Playboy Jazz Festival in Hollywood; the Boston Globe Festival; and more.
Wein’s love of the music was always at the forefront for him and his festivals. This, combined with his acute business acumen, is what made him so successful. “I never went into it as ‘a business,’” he said. “The music was in my head, in my heart, in my soul. And it still is.”
In the late 1960s, Wein pioneered corporate sponsorship at festivals with the “Schlitz Salute to Jazz” in Detroit, forever changing the landscape and expanding the limitations of what a “festival” meant and could be.
Throughout his career, Wein received dozens of awards, recognitions, and honorary degrees. Among the most notable: Légion d'honneur and Commandeur de L'Ordre des Arts et Lettres from France, honored at the White House by Jimmy Carter in 1978 and Bill Clinton in 1993, named a “Jazz Master” by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2005, and honorary degrees from Berklee College of Music and Rhode Island College of Music. He maintained a lifetime Honorary Trustee position of Carnegie Hall, and served on the board for the Jazz Foundation of America, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the Apollo Theater Foundation.
In 2004, he released his acclaimed autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Jazz.
Wein married his wife, Joyce, in 1959. Together, the couple supported a number of music heritage initiatives, including the establishment of the George and Joyce Wein Collection of African-American Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, the George and Joyce Wein New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Center (located at 1225 N. Rampart), various initiatives in music education, including scholarships, and more.
George Wein will be deeply missed by the music community in New Orleans and worldwide. The staff and volunteers of WWOZ send our condolences to his family, friends, and many colleagues.
Below, a few photos of Wein from recent years in New Orleans: