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George Wein, founder of New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Newport music festivals, dies at 95

Wein created the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970 as well as the foundation which now produces the mega-event and preserves its cultural legacy.
Credit: AP
George Wein performs at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2015.(AP Photo/Joe Giblin, File)

George Wein, the legendary impresario, jazz pianist and promoter best known locally as founder of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, died Monday. He was 95.

On Twitter, Jazz Fest producers called him the "brilliant mastermind of the modern music festival."

“It is with immense sadness that we let you know of the passing of our founder and north star, George Wein,” announced the Newport Jazz Festival on Facebook. Mr. Wein founded the Newport festival in 1954, more than a decade before establishing the New Orleans Jazz Fest. 

“We have all lost a giant champion of jazz, art, philanthropy, and equality. There will never be another like him. Rest easy, George,” Newport organizers wrote.

Wein created the Newport event – the country’s first outdoor jazz festival – in 1954, with a lineup that included Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald and other stars. Though it attracted worldwide media attention, it barely broke even, according to The New York Times. He later created the Newport Folk Festival and music fests in Los Angeles, New York, Boston and elsewhere.

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Wein was first contacted by New Orleanians about producing a jazz festival here in 1962, but told them segregation laws at the time made such an event unfeasible. Wein wrote in his 2003 autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, that his concerns about New Orleans at the time were heightened by the fact that musicians of both races would not be able to perform on stage together. He was also sensitive to the situation since his wife, Joyce, was Black.

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a jazz festival launched here with a different producer at the helm. In 1969, Wein was contacted about taking over the event and accepted.

“In the eight years since my first trip to New Orleans, the world had changed,” he wrote in his memoir. “The South had opened up and there was a desire on the part of Southern cultural establishments to join the mainstream of American art and entertainment.”

Wein’s early local advisors included Tulane University jazz archivist Dick Allen, who introduced Wein to Quint Davis, a student worker at Tulane’s Hogan Jazz Archive. Davis and his then-girlfriend, Allison Miner, would become key members of Wein’s team. Davis remains the event’s producer-director.

Credit: Amy Harris/Invision/AP
George Wein, left, and Quint Davis announce the 50th Anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2019 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Sunday, April 29, 2018, in New Orleans. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

Early on, Wein proposed that the event should be more than just a music festival but a “heritage fair,” which he wrote that he “deemed every bit important as the music,” by highlighting local artists, artisans and folklife as well as food – all of which remain cornerstones to this day.

The first New Orleans Jazz Festival under Wein’s leadership was held in 1969 in Congo Square – then called Beauregard Square. Performers included Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt and many more.

“We had everything – everything, that is except people,” Wein wrote. “Despite considerable grassroots promotional effort, a cornucopia of talent, the unique character of the festival and an admission charge of merely three dollars, attendance was shockingly sparse, with only about 300 people in the square. Joyce went across the street to an orphanage and came back with a gaggle of children in tow.”

In time, Wein’s creation would grow to become a worldwide event – moving to the New Orleans Fair Grounds in the 1970s and becoming a major moneymaker for the city and region in the 50-plus years since.

Wein was also careful to create the non-profit Jazz & Heritage Foundation, which puts on the annual event and consistently makes good on its founder’s promise to "promote, preserve and perpetuate" local music and culture.

In 2014, the foundation opened the George and Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center in a former funeral home on North Rampart Street named for Wein and his wife, who died in 2005. It houses a performance space, music classrooms and the offices of the foundation.

Born in Lynn, Mass., near Boston, on Oct. 3, 1925, Wein became a professional musician while still a teenager.  He played piano well into his 80s, announcing at the 2019 Newport event that it would be his “last performance as a jazz musician.”

In 1960, following the success of his Newport festivals, Wein established Festival Productions to run what would become a worldwide empire, producing festivals and tours in some 50 cities worldwide.

According to the New York Times, Wein was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2005 and inducted into the French Legion of Honor in 1991.

In 2015, the Recording Academy gave him a Grammy Trustees Award for lifetime achievement. The award was presented by rap star and actor LL Cool J.

“George Wein defined what a music festival could be with the Newport Jazz Festival, Newport Folk Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival," LL Cool J said. "This is a great guy. More than anyone, George set the stage for what great festivals today look like; festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo … he made this possible…."

Wein and his wife also created The George and Joyce Wein Collection of African-American Art, which went on display at Boston University in 2019. 

The Joyce and George Wein Foundation also contributes to a number of arts organizations, including The Studio Museum in Harlem. The foundation also established The Joyce and George Wein Chair of African American Studies at Boston University and the Alexander Family Endowed Scholarship Fund at Simmons College. 

According to a Newport Jazz Festival statement, Wein is survived by his nieces Margie Wein of Brooklyn, New York, and Carol Wein of Watertown, Mass.; a sister-in-law, Theodora McLaurin of Chestnut Hill, Mass; and his longtime friend, Dr. Glory Van Scott of New York City. 

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