Remembering George Wein, Legendary Music Festival Producer
The Smithsonian Folkways family is saddened by the recent passing of George Wein (1925–2021), who was responsible for creating the form of outdoor multi-stage music festivals that we have come to know and that have made live music accessible to much larger audiences. He founded the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, the Playboy Jazz Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, among many other events.
A jazz pianist, he performed professionally throughout his career and recorded albums for his own Storyville label, as well as Impulse, Atlantic, and Concord Jazz. But early on he opened the jazz club Storyville, in Boston, and began promoting musicians and presenting local events. He was asked to help organize a major jazz festival at Newport, R.I., in 1954 and a similar venture, the Newport Folk Festival, in 1959. The folk festival began to include a smaller narrative stage where the audience could see artists up close and ask questions. It also presented food and crafts—a model followed by future folk festivals and the Jazz Fest itself.
During the 1960s officials in New Orleans wanted Wein to create a festival there to honor the city’s musical legacy. However, segregation laws and local policies made it impossible for Black and white musicians to play together, and that was the only way Wein would agree to work. Officials also balked when they found out Wein’s wife, Joyce, was African American. Several years later, the passage of the Civil Rights Act opened up new possibilities in New Orleans. The first festival occurred in 1970 with evening concerts and a daytime heritage fair. Wein stressed that it should showcase New Orleans and Louisiana culture. Beginning with 350 attendees, the festival eventually became a major two-week daytime affair that now attracts roughly half a million people.
Wein developed a plan to use corporate money to stage these large events, bringing in funding from the likes of Kool cigarettes and Schlitz beer. He began to put together JVC festivals worldwide. His production company, Festival Productions, was involved in many festivals and worked with the Smithsonian on the 1993 Presidential Inauguration.
He continued to be involved in the yearly New Orleans Jazz Fest, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. In 2018–19 Smithsonian Folkways produced a celebratory 50th anniversary box set in collaboration with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, its archive, and WWOZ radio. George Wein lent his hand to the project by sharing an introductory reminiscence.
His enormous legacy touches us deeply.