George Wein, who organized the first ever Newport Jazz Festival, advanced Jazz throughout his lifetime by discovering new talent and making it more inclusive, according to jazz critic Bob Blumenthal.
“He was the greatest concert impresario of the second half of the 20th century in any era of music. He changed the way music was presented,” Blumenthal said. “He contributed to the changes in jazz and made Newport, Rhode Island, of all places, our critical stopping point in jazz history.”
The Newton Free Library commemorated the renowned jazz musician and former Newton resident George Wein—who died on Sept. 13, 2021—as part of its ongoing Newton History Series. Blumenthal, a former Boston Globe critic, talked about Wein’s contribution to the evolution of jazz performances at the March 31 event.
Although Wein was a jazz pianist throughout his life, he realized that he wanted to be more than just a performer early on, according to Blumenthal.
“Even though he led a band in high school, what he took away from that was he was a better organizer,” said Blumenthal.
After college, Wein became more invested in producing and promoting jazz music rather than focusing on his career as a jazz performer, Blumenthal said. Before Wein explored the world with his work, he planted his roots in Copley Square.
In the square, Wein founded Storyville in 1950. As a jazz club and recording studio, Storyville promoted a range of old and new jazz sounds. Blumenthal said the Dave Brubeck Quartet recorded its first live album, Jazz at Storyville, at the club.
Storyville also showcased many famous musicians on its stages, including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Charlie Parker, according to Blumenthal. Musicians either played in the basement where traditional jazz was played or on the main level where more contemporary jazz was featured.
“He described opening Storyville as ‘the biggest leap of my life,’” Blumenthal said.
Wein’s work in Boston attracted Elaine and Louis Lorillard, the founders of the Newport Jazz Festival. Blumenthal said the couple asked for Wein’s help in creating the lineup for the very first festival in the summer of 1954.
“For the original festival, which only lasted two nights, he had, among other artists, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Gerry Mulligan, Ella Fitzgerald, a tribute to Count Basie with Lester Young, George Shearing, Lennie Tristano, and Billie Holiday,” said Blumenthal. “You listen to that lineup now, and you just go ‘Wow.’”
Wein promoted both known and unknown artists at The Newport Jazz Festival, according to Blumenthal. He said Duke Ellington’s performance in Newport gave his career a new life.
“It basically revised the fortunes of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and Ellington found himself on the cover of Time magazine a couple of weeks after the Newport performance,” Blumenthal said. “Duke Ellington went on to another almost two decades of great music.”
Wein created the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, which featured artists including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. From Newport, Wein spread his influence across the Atlantic before returning in 1969 to New Orleans—often referred to the birthplace of jazz—according to Blumenthal.
“He had created festivals in Europe, in Asia, and in all parts of the United States,” Blumenthal said. “So he was able to really affect the presentation of music around the world. He basically influenced not just how jazz was presented in festival settings, but popular music as well. And I think this was his great contribution to the world beyond the jazz world.”
Wein organized jazz festivals in New Orleans after he returned from abroad, including organizing the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1969. Wein’s work then became intertwined with the Civil Rights Movement, Blumenthal said.
“And that [festival] took place after years of negotiations with the powers that be in New Orleans because George insisted that all of the musicians got to stay in good hotels, that the concert audiences be integrated, that integrated bands would appear,” he said.
Blumenthal said Wein was a pioneer in the fight for civil rights—especially within the music industry—through his work with many Black musicians.
Wein committed himself to loosening the constraints on who could participate in the jazz industry, according to Blumenthal. Even though he met resistance, Wein continued his efforts by giving exposure to new artists, Black artists, and artists that would not traditionally be considered jazz musicians, like Frank Sinatra.
“There was a lot more going on about exposing the audience to what’s new, reminding the audience of what’s valuable, but not so new, and showing connections that people might not make with the music,” Blumenthal.
At the end of Blumenthal’s presentation, Clara Silverstein, the community engagement manager of Historic Newton, asked if anyone is making similar strides in experimenting with the presentation of live music today.
“I think that he showed people how to do it,” Blumenthal said. “And he operated on such a large scale that he had this great staff that worked with him. … So I don’t know if it would work the same way. These evolving definitions, George had a lot to do with that.”
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons