FestForums Lifetime Achievement Award to George Wein, New York City

It was my honor to introduce festival producers and event promoters to George Wein, the father of festivals and of entertainment sponsorship. Whether you know George or don’t, I think you will enjoy reading about him as it is a history of the birth of the modern events industry and sponsorship.

Every mathematician on the planet—living or dead—are part of a family tree dating back to 1726 with a mathematician from Basel, Switzerland.

Called the Mathematics Genealogy Project, you can google the site and enter the name of any mathematician and what comes up is where and when they earned their Ph.D., the Topic of their Dissertation, their advisor and their students and the descendants of their students.

It is a way to measure their influence both in their time and on future generations of mathematicians.

If we had a Festival Genealogy Project, George Wein would be at the top of the tree. And, his students would include:

  • Quint Davis, who has worked with George for more than 30 years and is CEO of Festival Productions New Orleans, producer/director of the Jazz & Heritage Festival, Essence Music Festival, Bayou Country Superfest, Acura Music Festival and more;
  • John Schreiber, president and CEO of New Jersey Performing Arts Center, who after serving as president of George’s company went on to produce Tony and Emmy Award winning musicals and has turned the performing arts center into an asset for the entire community;
  • Danny Melnick, president of Absolutely Live Entertainment, who helms Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival and Newport Jazz Festival;
  • And, all of you. Because George is the founder of modern day festivals.

From jazz club to Festival Mogul
Picture this. It is 1950. George is 24-years-old. He’s dropped out of Harvard—dashing his father’s hopes for a doctor in the family—and running a jazz club in Boston that he named Storyville.

Storyville’s buzz spreads well beyond Boston and four years later, he is approached by a tobacco heiress named Elaine Lorillard who gives him a line of credit and asks him to come up with something to make her summer stomping ground, the seaside town of Newport, Rhode Island, less dull.

In an interview, George recalled thinking that he could have staged a series of jazz concerts. Or opened a club in Newport for the summer.

But, he’d been to Tanglewood, the classical music festival, and believed jazz should have a festival too. It would bring respect and elevate the music.

So, in 1954, 15 years before Woodstock, he presented the first Newport Jazz Festival, lying the ground work for today’s festival explosion and defining and shaping our ideas of a festival.

Five years after launching Newport Jazz, George teamed with Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel to create the famed Newport Folk Festival.

George the Entrepreneur
Using Newport as his Foundation, George and late wife Joyce, built Festival Productions, Inc., into an international powerhouse with festivals in Japan, Bermuda, Warsaw, Paris, Nice, London and The Hague.

In the USA, FPI produced the legendary New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival; Playboy Jazz Festival and Boston Globe Jazz Festival.

He created multi-city festival tours for brands like JVC, Mellon Bank, Budweiser and Verizon.

Not just jazz. FPI also produced

  •  Toyota Comedy Festival;
  •  Benson & Hedges Blues series;
  •  And, Miller Brewing’s Miller Sound Express.

George defines the meaning of festival
So, how does the creator of 50+ festivals define a festival?

In 1984, at the fairgrounds of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, I asked George that question.

Here’s what he said:

“A festival has a subject, and everything related to the subject should be presented over the course of the event with a point of view that runs through the music, the venues, the food, the crafts, the graphics.”

At Newport, he incorporated programming like symposiums, master classes and lectures related to jazz including an academic panel on “The Meaning of Jazz”

This concept, of presenting the broad spectrum of a subject, that we now take for granted, was a radical idea when George introduced it in Newport 62 years ago.

At that time jazz was divided. The beboppers didn’t accept swing and vice versa. George’s big tent approach, presenting Dixieland traditionalists alongside experiential progressives, had never happened before.

Part of the magic of festivals are the connections created by unexpected pairings: putting together performers from different bands, eras, styles or parts of the world.

George taught us that festival producers were not just buyers of talent, they were curators and alchemists.

From that first Newport Jazz Festival George put in place another key dimension of festivals, more than entertainment, great ones enhance entire ecosystems.

For example, when George brought Newport Jazz Festival to NYC, he helped restore a jazz scene that had been stagnating.

George was about art.

But he was as much about commerce.

George pioneered entertainment sponsorship.

  • In 1967—a full 15 years before Jovan presented the Rolling Stones Tour—George teamed with Schlitz beer to present the Schlitz Salute to Jazz on the festival’s opening night. The following year, Schlitz took Newport Jazz to some 20 cities. Called the Schlitz Salute to Jazz, he was the first to give the sponsor the title slot.
  • Not only was George the first to sell title to a music tour, he was also the first (and only) one who was ever paid to remove it. In the 80s, Newport Jazz was moved to NYC and promoted under the name, KOOL Newport Jazz Festival New York. Then someone at KOOL realized that Newport was also the name of a competing brand of cigarettes, and George was paid a significant sum to remove the Newport name from the festival.  
  • George’s contributions to culture have been recognized by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton at two White House celebrations of the 25th and 40th anniversaries of the Newport Jazz Festival.

He’s is the recipient of:

  • The French Legion of Honor;
  • Da Capo Foundation Award for Cultural Innovation;
  • GRAMMY Trustees Award;
  • New York Urban League’s the Frederick Douglass Award;
  • APAP Award for changing the way young Americans listen to music in the summer;
  • And, in his honor, the board of New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival named its building on Rampart Street the Joyce and George Wein Jazz and Heritage Center.

After an amazing run, George sold FPI in 2007 to a new venture called Festival Network.

But, with the 2008 financial meltdown, the Festival Network went bankrupt.

To ensure the Newport Festivals would not be cancelled, at the age of 85, Wein stepped back in, secured new financing for Newport Jazz and Folk, formed the Newport Festivals Foundation, a nonprofit that will maintain the festivals in perpetuity while establishing educational initiatives and programs for music students and musicians.

George the Philanthropist
George is not just a maker, producer and promoter of live music, he is a generous supporter of it, giving of his time, expertise and funds. He’s:

  • Lifetime Honorary Trustee of Carnegie Hall;
  • Member of the Board of Trustees at Jazz at Lincoln Center;  
  • And, at the Apollo Theatre Foundation.

The Joyce and George Wein Foundation endows

  • Programs in the music department at Rhode Island’s Salve Regina University;
  • A music program for gifted high school musicians at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center;
  • Support for emerging artists and new music at Newport Jazz Festival;
  • And, an annual artist prize at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

I am running out of time so going to wrap this up with one of George’s Facebook posts from last Christmas which captures so much about him and the business we are all in, the business of art and heart…bread and circuses.

George’s Christmas Facebook post reads:

"It’s my 92nd Christmas coming up and I wish you all the happiest of holiday seasons. I look forward to seeing you at Newport this summer…

Just a quick reminder: our Flex tickets, which were very popular last year, are even more successful this year. Only a few flex tickets are still available. Buy them today and pick your day later. They make the perfect holiday gift." — George Wein

By Lesa Ukman