So the Story Goes: George Wein on the birth of the Newport Jazz Festival

News | Aug, 8th 2016

If you get a group of jazz musicians in a room together, it’s only a matter of time until they start sharing stories from the road. In this original series, “So the Story Goes,” we will highlight some of those great stories. Seeother entries in this series.

George Wein is one of the most influential people (non-musicians division) in jazz history. Although Wein plays piano, he is most notable for his contributions as a producer and promoter. 

In 1950, Wein opened a jazz club, Storyville, in Boston’s Copley Square. In short order, the club was playing host to some of jazz’s biggest names, including Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald. It wasn't long before a wealthy family from Newport, Rhode Island asked Wein to organize some summer musical entertainment. Wein delivered, and then some.

1954’s Wein-produced Newport Jazz Festival was the first American jazz festival and exceeded all expectations. Today, the Newport Jazz Festival is one of the leading jazz festivals in the world. This July, the now-90-year-old Wein stepped down from his role as artistic director of the festival, a role that will be assumed by bassist Christian McBride. In an episode of Jazz Stories, Wein shares the story of how Newport came to fruition, from a vague request to the festival’s first moment of triumph:

The Lorillard family [wealthy Newport-based socialites] came to me and said, “We have a dull summer in Newport.” And I didn’t know what to do. We could have done a series of jazz concerts. We could have opened up a club in the summer. But then I realized that we had a classical music festival in Tanglewood and I thought, “Why can’t jazz have a festival?”

So what is a festival? Well, first of all, it was more than just having a stage and putting musicians on it.

I said, “Let’s get a committee; let’s get a board of advisors,” and we brought in some wonderful names. I said, “Let’s have some symposiums; let’s discuss this great American music. Let’s put it on the level of classical music. Let’s put it on a level of the arts that it deserves.”

That was a vital part of the first festival. The symposiums, they were just people from different walks of life—different sciences, different sociological areas that related to jazz. Never mind the jazz critics! And never mind some musicians!

Then what was the music?

We had all these different movements. Jazz was a tremendous dichotomy back in 1954. The beboppers didn’t accept swing, the swing didn’t accept bebop, and there were different magazines and different writers that aligned themselves with different forms of the music. Who did you like? George Simon writing about the big bands? Or Barry Ulanov writing about Lennie Tristano? Or Leonard Feather writing about bebop? He was a turncoat because he had originally liked swing and then he switched to bebop. I mean, this was a bad time! There was tremendous animosity. There were fights!

So I put together a festival that had Eddie Condon and a Chicago group with Pee Wee Russell and Bobby Hackett on the same program with Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz. You know, this had never happened before! And that was just part of the festival. I couldn’t afford the big bands so I needed names. I needed something that would attract attention so I got Stan Kenton to come and be the MC. I don’t know where I thought of these things.

But then there were my own memories of the music that I loved. This was part of my being. And I said, “Hey, I’m going to get Billie Holiday. And you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to get Teddy Wilson to play with Billie Holiday. I want to get Lester Young to play with Teddy Wilson. I’m going to get Roy Eldridge to play the trumpet and Jo Jones to play the drums.” I was like a kid in a candy shop! I could pick whoever I wanted. They were all there and they all needed the work.

So I was creating something while I was going along and I wasn’t aware that we were making history. I wasn’t the least bit aware. Next thing I know, I had Billie Holiday on stage with Teddy Wilson!

Click here to read more entries of So the Story Goes.


Image credits: The JLCO at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2014, by Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Center; Wynton Marsalis at Newport, by Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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