George Wein, the impresario who almost single-handedly turned the jazz festival into a worldwide phenomenon, died Monday at his apartment in Manhattan. He was 95.
His death was announced by a spokesperson, Carolyn McClair.
Jazz festivals were not an entirely new idea when Wein was approached about presenting a weekend of jazz in the open air in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1954. There had been sporadic attempts at such events, notably in both Paris and Nice, France, in 1948. But there had been nothing as ambitious as the festival Wein staged that July on the grounds of the Newport Casino, an athletic complex near the historic mansions of Bellevue Avenue.
With a lineup including Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald and other stars, the inaugural Newport Jazz Festival drew thousands of paying customers over two days and attracted the attention of the news media. It barely broke even; Wein later recalled that it made a profit of $142.50, and that it ended up in the black only because he waived his $5,000 producer’s fee.
But it was successful enough to merit a return engagement, and before long, the Newport festival had established itself as a jazz institution — and as a template for how to present music in the open air on a grand scale.
By the middle 1960s, festivals had become as important as nightclubs and concert halls on the itinerary of virtually every major jazz performer, and Wein had come to dominate the festival landscape.
He did not have the field to himself: Major events such as the Monterey Jazz Festival in California, which began in 1958, and the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, which began in 1967, were the work of other promoters. But for half a century, if there was a significant jazz festival anywhere in the world, there was a better than even chance it was a George Wein production.
At the height of his success, Wein was producing events in Warsaw, Poland; Paris, Seoul, South Korea, and elsewhere overseas, as well as all over the United States.
Newport remained his flagship, and it quickly became known as a place where jazz history was made. Miles Davis was signed to Columbia Records on the strength of his inspired playing at the 1955 festival. Duke Ellington’s career, which had been in decline, was reinvigorated a year later when his rousing performance at Newport landed him on the cover of Time magazine. The 1958 festival was captured on film by photographer Bert Stern in the documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” one of the most celebrated jazz movies ever made.
Wein’s empire extended beyond jazz. It included the Newport Folk Festival, which played a vital role in the careers of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and many other performers. (It was at Newport that Dylan sent shock waves through the folk world by performing with an electric band in 1965.) He also produced the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which showcased a broad range of vernacular music as well as the culture and cuisine of New Orleans, and staged festivals devoted to blues, soul, country and even comedy.
His one venture into the world of rock was not a happy experience. Gate-crashers disrupted the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival, whose bill for the first time included rock bands, among them Led Zeppelin and Sly and the Family Stone. The Newport city leaders issued a ban on such acts the next summer; when both rock (the Allman Brothers) and the gate-crashers returned in 1971, Wein was not invited back. (The Newport Folk Festival, which had not been held in 1970 but was scheduled for later in the summer of 1971, was canceled.)
He was not discouraged. In 1972, he moved the Newport Jazz Festival to New York City, where it became a less bucolic but more grandiose affair, with concerts at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Radio City Music Hall and other locations around town. Under various names and corporate sponsors, the New York event continued to thrive for almost 40 years. In addition, the jazz festival returned to Newport in 1981 and the folk festival in 1985, both once again under Wein’s auspices.