NEW ORLEANS - Just blocks from where he staged the very first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival at Congo Square, founding producer George Wein’s name will live on in a new jazz and heritage center, dedicated by the festival’s foundation in his name and unveiled at a ceremony Friday morning.
The event to dedicate the George and Joyce Wein Jazz and Heritage Center came about 90 minutes before the start of the second Friday of Jazz Fest, delayed by rain, but poised to continue the 43-year legacy of the event that Wein introduced, which has grown into a billion dollar money maker.
“It’s like the Super Bowl of American music and culture,” said festival producer Quint Davis, a protégé of Wein’s, who was tapped by the founder in 1970 to help organize the first festival, nearly two decades after Wein and others started the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island.
“George knew what a festival was. We didn’t. George and Joyce knew how to put a festival on. We didn’t. So they came here and made a festival, taught us how to put it on and got it on its way.”
Wein, 87, and his wife Joyce, who died in 2005, were applauded by friends and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Foundation board members at Friday morning’s dedication ceremony. It was held inside the small North Rampart Street offices where the festival was born and the foundation is housed – formerly the Eagle Bar, Davis pointed out.
“And it was still a bar when we moved in, which had its points,” he joked.
Next door, inside a former funeral home, construction will soon begin on the George and Joyce Wein Jazz and Heritage Center, a permanent home for the many educational and cultural programs run by the foundation, the non-profit that owns the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell, and is funded by proceeds from the fest.
There will be seven classrooms inside the center, as well as audio and video recording studios, and a 200-seat auditorium. Programs housed in the building, purchased by the foundation in 2008, will include the Don “Moose” Jamison Heritage School of Music. The center itself is funded by a $1 million donation from Wein, organizers said. Construction is expected to be completed by late 2014.
“I always thought about maybe having a house in New Orleans because I came here so often, but now I have a permanent address here,” Wein said to great applause Friday morning.
“This is the perfect circle,” Davis added. “George’s insistence that the festival be made non-profit led to this, and the mission that when the festival could make money to put the money back into the culture it was exploiting, if you will.”
Wein is a jazz pianist, promoter and bandleader who founded the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, the first outdoor jazz festival in the United States, followed by the Newport Folk Festival in 1959.
When Wein was first approached by New Orleanians about starting a festival here, Davis remembered, Wein pointed out the need to highlight not just jazz music but also the food, culture and heritage of the city and state, hence the original bulky name but pure mission of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Louisiana Heritage Fair, now the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
“He had this idea, this vision, to put these things together and create, and reconstruct the name, if you will, the Heritage of Jazz festival. It really came about because of his love for New Orleans, its music and culture,” Davis said.
The first event, at Congo Square, drew just a few hundred people, but a musical lineup rich in local culture and featuring Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington, whom Wein commissioned to compose his “New Orleans Suite.”
At Friday’s event, Wein joked about the small crowd that first year, saying he remembered the ice cream melting because there weren’t crowds big enough to eat it. But he pointed out the importance of having local talent and culture highlighted in the festival.
“Everything we did the first year was pure New Orleans,” he said. “The reason I did that is to make people realize that the music they had in their communities, the Cajun and gospel and (Mardi Gras) Indians, the traditional jazz and modern jazz, which everybody took for granted, that this was something the world would be interested in. I don’t know why I knew that, I just felt it.”
The festival moved to its current home, the New Orleans Fair Grounds, two years later.
Wein’s wife, who served as vice president of their company, Festival Productions, and died in 2005, was lauded Friday by friend Mickey Barthelemy. Mrs. Barthelemy and her husband, former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, were close friends of the Weins.
“We know that in New Orleans we try very hard to never let the music stop and we New Orleanians know that our dear friends, George and Joyce Wein, have always done their part to see that the music never stops in New Orleans,” Mrs. Barthelemy said. “Joyce was an educator, sharing her knowledge and doing whatever she could to make life better for others. She always encouraged young people to learn, and to learn and to learn some more.”
The Weins were applauded Friday as people who broke down barriers, by starting the festival in New Orleans in 1970, an integrated event during a still segregated time, in custom if not by law. Wein himself said there were numerous stops and starts before the 1970 birth of the festival, because of legal concerns in the days before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Business and tourism leaders in the city first contacted him about starting a festival in 1962, but staging it in the still-segregated South would not happen until eight years later. The fact that Wein’s wife Joyce was African-American also stalled the project in its early years, Wein said.
“If I’d have brought her in ’62, they’d have put us in jail,” he said Friday.
Wein said he is proud and overwhelmed by the current success of the festival, and of his protégé, Davis, who now runs Festival Productions. Wein recruited Davis and Allison Miner, who died in 1995, as key organizers of the first festivals, based on a referral by Dick Allen, curator of Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive, who knew the pair from their work at the archive and on the local music scene.
“Quint is a genius and has taken this festival to a level that I never dreamed of,” Wein said.