GoLocal Interview – Newport Festival Producer George Wein

Wednesday, July 08, 2015


George WeinView Larger +

Newport Festival Creator George Wein (photo: Ayano Hisa)

There’s a buzz of activity in the New York City office of the Newport Festivals Foundation where George Wein spends his days looking after the two festivals he created along with Elaine and Louis Lorillard over 60 years ago in Newport. With less than a month to go, the 89 year old producer of Newport Jazz and Newport Folk is as excited as ever about this year’s events.

I sat down with Wein last week for a revealing conversation on topics including Newport festivals past and present, as well as Wein’s own role in shaping modern American music.

The Innovator

Wein is a living legend in the music world with too many accolades to list. He’s been honored by the Grammy Awards, the National Endowment of the Arts, the French Legion d’Honneur and the RI Music Hall of Fame. His iconic festivals are known internationally and he appreciates the deep connection to past Newport festivals.

“To ignore the history of Newport, for both Folk and Jazz, would be wrong,” declared Wein.

“We changed the whole approach to the presentation of music outdoors and the approach of programming. We presented a totality of music, whether it was traditional jazz or contemporary jazz or traditional folk or the more commercial folk music.”

Many music fans may not realize that the Newport Jazz Festival was the first outdoor popular music festival anywhere in the world. Way before anyone even dreamed of Woodstock, Wein was producing top notch Jazz festivals each summer for over 20,000 fans. It’s quite a legacy.

 “Whether it was Miles Davis or Bob Dylan or new faces like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez, they all made their biggest impressions at Newport,” remarked Wein.

50 Years Ago – Dylan goes Electric

This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most important events in Rock music history – the summer when Bob Dylan played electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. The event, memorialized in legend, shocked the folk music community. In his 2004 book Myself Among Others Wein wrote:

“The young idealistic folk fans, who had valiantly resisted the mainstream tastes of their friends, no longer had to hold out. Rock and Roll was no longer taboo; if Dylan could cross that line, so could they.”

Wein is looking forward to Sunday’s final set, where a number of special guests will put together a show dubbed “65 Revisited,” a tribute to Dylan’s daring performance. Some surprises are planned, but Wein was mum on any special guests. “My office in most cases, is just like the public, we don’t know until we get to the Festival.”

It’s unlikely Dylan himself will be in attendance, although you never know. He’s only returned to the Festival once before, in 2002, and he’s not known for being overly sentimental in public.

60 Years Ago – Miles Davis at Newport

This year’s Jazz Festival includes special programming celebrating the 60th anniversary of Jazz legend Miles Davis’ first appearance at the Festival. There are lectures and special performances scheduled and Wein has asked several artists to dedicate a tune to the legendary trumpeter.

On Saturday and Sunday of the Festival weekend, the former Yachting Museum at Ft. Adams will be converted into Storyville, named for Wein’s famous Boston Jazz club.

“Some of the musicians that played with Miles will talk. There will be stories, a few that are in my book, and a few that aren’t in my book and a few that I can’t repeat. The program book will have a lot of Miles in it, with rare photos. We’re honoring Miles because of the release of the Sony albums that have never been officially released.”

Wein will be interviewed by New York Times Jazz Critic and author Nate Chinen and experts will present selections from the new Columbia/Legacy Recordings box set Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975. Davis appeared at Newport Jazz four times, and Sony’s box set will include complete performances of those shows.

“Miles and Dylan were one of a kind “Both were always concerned with not doing what you expected of them … throughout their life. Dylan, his last album, nobody would ever dream he would do an album of Tin Pan Alley ballads.”

Newport Memories

Wein recalled some great moments at Newport including one with a local connection. In 1956, the Jazz Festival resurrected the career of Duke Ellington, mainly thanks to a beautiful woman in a white dress dancing to the sounds of Rhode Island native, saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. Elington’s “Diminuendo and Cresendo in Blue” is remembered by many in attendance as one the greatest Jazz performances of all time. Gonsalves, a member of the RI Music Hall of Fame, played a 27 bar solo egged on by Ellington as the crowd rose to its feet. The scene was a near riot. It was recorded on the album Ellington at Newport, the bandleader’s all time best-selling album.

The Folk Festival also provides some great memories for Wein.

“To hear Arlo Guthrie singing "Alice’s Restaurant" for the first time, that was exciting for me and for the audience. To hear Bobby Dylan bring “Blowin’ in the Wind” out and the audience picked up on the song so quickly. To hear Joan Baez and her beautiful voice at the very first Folk Festival – she was totally unknown. It was her first time performing at a major concert … And of course, anything that Pete did, when he would lead the crowd in singing. I miss Peter Seeger very much – his whole philosophy was a major influence on me.”

Trustworthy Folk

In recent years, a remarkable development has seen the Folk Festival sell out even before announcing any artists scheduled to appear. It’s unprecedented in the music industry and a crowning achievement for Wein.

Even James Taylor is impressed. Wein shared a story of recently meeting Taylor aboard the QE2 on a cruise to England. “I’ve heard all about Newport he said. It’s amazing to me that you sell out in advance before your announced talent. What that means is that the audience has a sense of integrity about the event.”

This year’s festivals include the usual crop of great artists from big names like Roger Waters, Hozier, and Cassandra Wilson, to upstarts like Courtney Barnett and RI’s own Haunt the House. Wein is looking forward to seeing rising Jazz stars Snarky Puppy and Cecile McLorin Salvant. “I wanna hear everybody, because a lot of these groups prepare something special for Newport,” noted the producer.

It’s About the Music

Beyond his many awards, Wein feels sincere pride when recognized by the Jazz artists he serves.

“In this month’s issue of (Jazz magazine) Downbeat, two musicians mention my name. One was Maria Schneider, who dedicated a number on her new album to me. That means more to me than all the awards. That’s the world I work in. When musicians acknowledge me and say I’ve helped their careers, I feel good about that.”

Tickets for the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival presented by Natixis Global Asset Management are available here. Student tickets are only $20 and discount tickets for $55 are available until July 12. This year’s Folk Festival is sold out.

Be sure to follow GoLocalProv during Newport festival season for interviews, slide shows and more.

Ken Abrams review Folk, Jazz and more for GoLocal. E-Mail him here.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to George Wein as the founder of the Jazz Festival. The festival was financed by Newport residents Elaine and Louis Lorillard. Wein was hired to produce the first Jazz Festival and has played a leading role since.


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