Q-and-A With Newport Jazz and Folk Fest Founder George Wein

The founder of Newport's Folk and Jazz Festivals gets sentimental.

As Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals founder George Wein approaches his ninetieth birthday, he reflects back on a more than sixty-year musical relationship with the city of Newport, and considers where it is heading.

On Newport: “I had first been invited to Newport by the Lorillards to do something with jazz. I’d thought if Tanglewood could have a classical festival, why couldn’t we have a jazz festival? I’d heard about Bellevue Avenue, and the Breakers and the mansions. But just taking the ferry ride from Jamestown, I sensed there was something exciting about going there. And I said to myself: If I’m excited about it, other people must be excited about it, too. It’s not just me. When we announced Newport the first year in 1954, we had 5,000 people come.”

Expanding an Art Form: “The Lorillards deserve credit for something much bigger than even they realized they were doing. At the time, the patrons in this country never gave any money for jazz on any regular basis. So the Lorillards were the first of that privileged group to subsidize and encourage jazz. Now you have people across the country raising hundreds of millions of dollars to support and encourage jazz. All of this probably was pioneered because of Newport, and because the Lorillards were the first of this so-called privileged group of Americans to support that emerging art form.”

Seven Decades Strong: “There were no jazz or pop festivals like Newport before Newport. That’s why I got the Grammy this year. It’s nice to be recognized, but I didn’t know I was doing something influential. We were just doing something and hoping we could make it go.”

The Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival have created this magnetism and drawing power to young musicians. They know about Miles or Duke. Or the stories about Bob Dylan going electric, and Peter Seeger. They say, ‘Hey, now I’m going to play Newport!’ It’s sort of like playing Wimbledon in tennis. You’ve become acknowledged by the whole world that you’ve been invited to play folk or jazz at Newport.”

Looking Ahead: “There were some rough times. We fought to be accepted as something that’s a plus for what is here in Newport. It would’ve been easy to walk away and to say the hell with it. Now we have the best possible relationship with Newport. I’m proud of that. And now, as a nonprofit foundation, we’re building up an endowment so that we’ll continue the festivals after I’m gone. I have a few more years to work on that dream. In October, I’m going to be ninety years old. You don’t plan too much for after that.”